Tuesday 12 November 2019

It should have happened years ago

The Queen's visit shows our countries have matured in ways that are easier to feel than to describe, writes former envoy Ivor Roberts

There's something almost biblical about Garret FitzGerald's death during the most symbolic event in Anglo-Irish relations in a generation. "Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace ..." It's as though having worked tirelessly for peace within the island of Ireland and between our two islands, the great statesman had seen the culmination of his life's work and could slip quietly away. The Hillsborough agreement of 1985 which he signed with Margaret Thatcher had finally come to fruition.

The events of the last few days have certainly been transformational. The concerns that the visit of the British monarch might be met by indifference or hostility were confounded. Republican dissident supporters made little impact -- my Dublin taxi driver Declan said he'd heard noisier crowds at a funeral -- and the extraordinary warmth of the welcome was to a Brit heart-warming. The standing ovation in the Convention Centre was visual proof of the new page in the tortured relations between Britain and Ireland. We've come a long way and the journey has often been painfully slow.

It's more than nine years ago, at the time of Prince Charles's visit to Ireland, when I was ambassador in Dublin that an Irish newspaper ran the headline 'Mum's on her way'. I wouldn't have believed it could take so long to realise. It wasn't through any reticence on the Queen's part. It was widely known that she was desperately keen to make a journey which was last made by her grandfather 100 years ago exactly. And it seemed after the signature of the Good Friday Agreement that this would follow quite quickly. But that was to underestimate the legacy of bitterness and violence. In retrospect the negotiation of the Good Friday or Belfast Agreement looks to have been the simple part while the process to implement it has been agonisingly slow.

Seamus Mallon once described the Belfast Agreement as Sunningdale for slow learners. It was depressing that it took nearly 40 years to develop and implement a strategy which commanded widespread consent across both communities in Northern Ireland.

Nevertheless, Garret FitzGerald had a vision (which he was able, surprisingly, to sell to Margaret Thatcher) of the two governments working in tandem to reach a settlement of the North's problems. Irish government policy had been to hope that the US could bring pressure on British governments to force a new power-sharing arrangement through in the wake of the collapse of Sunningdale. This proved to be a blind alley. But with Garret's initiative the logjam began to move again.

Albert Reynolds and John Major played their part as did notably their successors, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern. Despite many setbacks the two governments worked together, with the support of key figures in the North, to reach an agreement sustained by majorities in both parts of the island.

We had in the agreement itself a settlement rooted in the principles of consent, justice and equality in which politics replaced violence as the way people do business. But the difficulty with an agreement is that whatever language the signatories use in binding themselves to implement it, they cannot create the crucial ingredient of mutual trust.

An old Spanish poem illustrates the problem. "Traveller, there are no roads, roads are made by walking." Trust, in other words, can only be built on the basis of experience, common experience, and common fruitful experience. This is what takes time. And sometimes the common experience is not a happy one as the Queen acknowledged in her well-chosen words at the State dinner in Dublin Castle: "It is a sad and regrettable reality that through history our islands have experienced more than their fair share of heartache, turbulence and loss ... . With the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all."

President McAleese too has been a relentless enthusiast for the State visit. She has played a huge part over more than a decade in bringing the two communities in the North together; she and her husband Martin have been tireless in helping to break the ice and create that magic ingredient, trust. It is fitting and, of course, no coincidence that this visit should have taken place only a few months before the President's mandate concludes.

That the McAleeses had to put in the effort was a sad reflection of the fact that relations within and between these islands have been defined for far too long by nationalism coupled with religious bigotry. To move away from nationalism and sectarianism involves reducing the extent to which people feel secure and understood only among people like themselves. So in Northern Ireland we have had to overcome this bell-jar mentality by discounting and rejecting sectarianism in all its sinister forms. The murderous attack made against the Catholic Northern Ireland police officer Ronan Kerr for daring to join the new integrated police service in Northern Ireland is, of course, anathema to that approach and a classic example of the intolerance and collective gangsterism in which paramilitary structures thrive.

Peter Robinson's dedication of his party's victory in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections earlier this month to Ronan Kerr's memory was a graphic illustration of how times in the North have changed irrevocably for the better.

And UK devolution has helped the process significantly. Devolution was a bold and radical change to the way the UK is governed -- in British terms a constitutional revolution. Successive British governments wrestled with the paradox of regarding devolution as the starting point for the resolution of the problems of Northern Ireland while at the same time having deprived the people of Northern Ireland of its devolved government 40 years ago. With Northern Ireland and the two other devolved administrations firmly on their feet, these administrations provide bite-sized chunks which Ireland is very comfortable in dealing with.

There are less visible trends too. One is closer co-operation on European issues, such as social security, tax, justice and home affairs and economic reform. And recently when the Irish government needed European financial support to help it through its banking crisis, it was the British chancellor of the exchequer who spoke of helping a friend in need. Such language would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.

Both our countries have matured in ways which are easier to see and feel than describe. Famously, Winston Churchill once said that Britain and America were divided by a common language. Britain and Ireland have often been divided by a common history. But these divisions are narrower than they have ever been, and the bridges wider.

Much has been made of the symbolism of last week's visit. The symbol of the British Crown on Irish soil again. But until the last week, the British Crown was something remote and, well, symbolic of something the Irish had collectively turned against. But this was different. Olivia O'Leary told the assembled guests at the Convention Centre last Thursday of a child who, having been waved to, had exclaimed "It's the Queen! Oh my God, it's the actual Queen!"

It was the actual Queen who was on show in Ireland last week, not a symbol. And from my biased perspective, I would say that Ireland, broadly, took her to its heart.

Sir Ivor Roberts, President of Trinity College, Oxford, is a former British ambassador to Ireland, Italy and Yugoslavia and editor of the new edition of 'Satow's Diplomatic Practice'.

Sunday Independent

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