Saturday 15 June 2019

Do we really want the Queen of England here?

Unless our politicians make some positive commitment themselves, it's a visit planned at half-cock, and likely to go off at half-cock. I would say, if it isn't going to be done properly then call the whole thing off, writes Mary Kenny

When Brian Cowen issued a formal invitation to David Cameron, in June, that Queen Elizabeth should pay a state visit to the Republic of Ireland next year, the mandarins in foreign affairs (and the economic planners, too, since state visits are three-quarters about boosting trade) were duly satisfied.

This is something that has been in the offing since at least 1996, when President Mary Robinson paid an official visit to the Queen at Buckingham Palace.

President Mary Robinson, whose appearance at the palace was accompanied by the Grenadier Guards playing 'The Soldier's Song', said that her visit was part of a 'modernising mission' that was long overdue. It was one aspect of the 'normalising' of relations between Britain and Ireland.

It wasn't her first visit -- she had tea at Buckingham Palace in 1993, to a chorus of approval on both sides of the Irish Sea -- but it was a first official occasion. And ever since then, the civil servants and diplomatic services have been planning a return visit of QE II to Dublin.

They are supported, in the main, by the political class, but not wholly so. Politicians do what is useful to them, and the issue may not have any great resonance in Ballyjamesduff, say, where jobs might, understandably, be more of a priority.

And what do most people think? There is a dichotomy here. On the one hand, the British Ambassador, Julian King, is overwhelmed by invitations from small towns across the country for the Queen to come to them, since such appearances always enhance business and revenue. Is this just a commercial motive?

The question was asked before, when Queen Victoria came to Ireland in the 19th Century -- the great Fenian John Mitchel was astonished by the Cead Mile Failte accorded to her in the middle of a troubled century.

He, at first, supposed that those welcoming Victoria were self-interested folk in the pay of the Crown, or whose jobs depended on royal patronage. But he was too honest a man to be satisfied with this analysis.

He knew that a crowd of 100,000 people lining the streets of Dublin spontaneously meant something beyond mere utility. He concluded that it was deep within the Irish people to be welcoming -- people just wanted to act in a warm-hearted way.

And that, I believe, remains and endures. It is the natural condition of the culture. But there is also the other side of the dichotomy, which is very evident from the many letters to the newspapers in June and July, as well as other communications in the public realm such as radio phone-ins: the vein of sharp hostility to a visit from the British Head of State to this country, now or at any other time.

There is concern about the cost of such a visit, which is reckoned to be in the region of €8m -- not a huge amount, by the standards of Irish bank bailouts, or even in comparison to the forthcoming three-day Papal visit to Britain, which will cost at least £20m.

State visits of any type cost money, although a successful visit can also generate revenue, in trade, tourism and goodwill. Still, some people resent the notion of a British monarch costing the Irish exchequer any money at all, and one suggestion is that such money should be given, instead, to the poor and the homeless.

There is an even greater concern -- indeed, it is almost a perennial anxiety -- that receiving the Queen of England involves 'kow-towing' to an 'undemocratic' institution like a monarchy, although no such objections were made when other monarchical heads of state have visited this country.

A monarchy may be democratically supported without being elected and Queen Elizabeth continually gets popularity poll ratings of between 77pc and 80pc among the British people -- a rate that politicians might envy.

Republicans may not approve of monarchies, but as long as the people who live in those monarchies wish to continue this constitutional arrangement, that bestows a certain legitimacy.

(Mr Fintan O'Toole likes to aver that only republics can really deliver equality, but as it happens, some of the most egalitarian societies -- namely, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands -- are monarchies.)

The Irish anxiety about kow-towing goes back a long way. It was a central (and sometimes hilarious) part of the famous and immortal Treaty Debate in Dail Eireann in 1922.

Enormous worry was expressed by the extreme republicans like Mary MacSwiney and Constance Markievicz that any acknowledgement of the King (then George V) would involve terrible kow-towing (and might be especially liable to corrupt ordinary women, who might turn out to be weak-minded about matters regarding royalty!).

With his down-to-earth common sense and shrewd insight into human psychology, Michael Collins said that people who were devoured with worry about fawning were the ones who had the real obsessive-compulsive neuroses. Normal people had a sense of proportion and gave very little time to worrying whether they were fawning or kow-towing.

There are also Irish citizens who simply harbour political objections to this state visit. They do not accept that there has been a peace accord over Northern Ireland and an ongoing devolutionary work in progress -- they still see the Crown as an agency of partition.

There are Irish people alive today, in the words of one correspondent, James Deasy of Dun Laoghaire, "whose fathers and mothers, aunts and uncles, grandfathers and grandmothers were battered, bruised and humiliated by the Black and Tans" and do not want their Government issuing such an invitation to the symbol and epitome of the Crown.

True enough -- but what of the British people alive today whose relatives were blown to pieces by Irish republicans at Birmingham and Warrington and Guildford? There are even people still alive today who bear injuries from the IRA bombing campaign in Coventry and Birmingham in 1939-40. If we can never move forward from the sins and injuries of the past, then we can never move forward at all.

In sum, there are Irish people -- perhaps 10pc of the nation, and possibly more -- who really do not want the red carpet laid out for a state visit by the monarch of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland.

They feel it is not justified. They feel it is a useless expense. They feel it is kow-towing to an undemocratic constitutional form. They feel there is unfinished business with the North. They do not like the fact that any British monarch is going to be the titular head of the armed forces, and that involves regiments such as the paratroopers (of which Prince Charles is indeed titular Colonel-in-Chief).

And even if it is a minority -- often an articulate minority -- who form this opposition, aren't their objections valid and aren't they entitled to make them known? Yes, I would say, most definitely. Indeed, I think the Government should take these hostile views of the planned British state visit very seriously and address them openly.

What the Government is concerned about is ensuring that, if and when the visit does take place, it will be accompanied by faultless security, so that no freelance activist from the Real or Continuity IRA gets to take a pot shot at the British Head of State.

There are those who might indeed think that to assassinate Queen Elizabeth would be a triumph for their cause, oblivious of the fact that it would be a ghastly stain on the reputation of Ireland.

So the security is at present uppermost, and likely to be so tight that there will be little opportunity to exercise the genuine Cead Mile Failte which many people would want to extend. This is, of course, a pity, since ring-of-steel security takes much of the charm out of any occasion.

But besides security, shouldn't there also be more public information, or at least open public discussion about this proposed visit? If the Government wants it to be a success, there will need to be more open political support for the enterprise.

And emphatically more political explanation of what it means and entails -- it means good relations between Ireland and Britain, trade between Ireland and Britain, and, on the wider world stage, a positive signal that Ireland is a stable and welcoming society with a good attitude to neighbourly relations.

Yet unless and until the politicians make some positive commitment themselves, it's a visit planned at half-cock, and likely to go off at half-cock. I would say, if it isn't going to be done properly, then call the whole thing off.

Just imagine, by the way, that the British decided, on their side, that it was imprudent or unwise to allow Queen Elizabeth to visit the Republic of Ireland, and the state visit was cancelled, or put off, by London.

Imagine the grievances and the sense of wounded pride that would unleash here; imagine the headlines from the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal -- Ireland judged too unsafe and unwelcome for Monarch's visit. Disastrous.

Address the problems and complaints aroused by the prospect of the visit. If it is to be done, do it with commitment and zest. Otherwise, admit that it is not worth doing at all.

Mary Kenny's Crown & Shamrock -- Love and Hate between Ireland and the British Monarchy (New Island) will have a second printing in the autumn.

Irish Independent

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