Monday 18 February 2019

Karen Coleman: Flame shines a light on ties with closest partner

Karen Coleman

THE passage of the Olympic flame from Belfast to Dublin this week symbolised the extraordinary journey that Ireland and Britain have travelled over the decades.

Despite our growing globalisation and integration with the rest of Europe, Britain remains a key ally of ours. Our relationship has evolved over the centuries from one of conflict and hostility to affection and economic interdependence. It is a tie that we need to continue to nurture and develop.

The flame's journey through Catholic and Protestant communities was full of symbolism when set against the past decades of conflict and killings.

One example involved the Northern Irish comedian Patrick Kielty, who carried the Olympic torch through his home village of Dundrum, Co Down. It's a mainly Protestant neighbourhood, although Mr Kielty himself comes from a Catholic family.

In 1988, his father, Jack Kielty, was shot dead by loyalist paramilitaries when he was in the offices of his building firm in Dundrum. Mr Kielty was to be a key witness in a trial against a commander of the Ulster Defence Association.

When Patrick bore the flame through Dundrum last week, a passer-by is reported to have told him that his slain father would have been proud of him.

Dissident republicans tried to do their best to thwart the Olympic torch's journey in Derry but they failed to dampen its flame and Sonia O'Sullivan's lighting of the Olympic cauldron in St Stephen's Green showed how far British and Irish relations have progressed.

We have come a long way since the dark days of the Famine and the Black and Tans and the ensuing Civil War that set brother against brother.

In these economically gloomy times, this positive development is worth celebrating. We need Britain and they need us: Ireland is one of Britain's most important export markets and the reverse is also true.

Despite our trade links with the US and the EU and the increasing exploitation of Asian and South American markets, Britain remains Ireland's biggest customer. That interconnection continues with unemployed Irish emigrants once again moving to the UK.

Economically, Britain may become even more important to us if the euro collapses. It may well be in our best interests to link our currencies once again and have the punt's possible successor tied to sterling.

Unfortunately, Britain's Euroscepticism has weakened its position in Europe and swayed the balance of power in favour of the Franco-German axis. With its population of 62 million, the UK should wield considerable power in Brussels but David Cameron's Eurosceptic government has eroded its position and allowed Berlin, not Brussels, to call the shots.

The Eurosceptics are gaining ground in the UK with their growing demands for a referendum on EU membership. In the 2009 European elections, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) won 13 seats. UKIP wants to remove Britain from the EU -- which would be disastrous for Ireland.

BRITAIN'S half-in, half-out attitude to the EU isn't good for Ireland and arguably a sizeable chunk of other EU countries. We need the British to return to the heart of European affairs to balance the Franco-German alliance. They could be an essential buffer to growing moves by Berlin and Paris to lead a two-tier Europe. But persuading the Tories to enthusiastically get stuck in with the Europeans could be a gargantuan challenge.

And speaking of Olympian efforts, the symbolism of last week's flame flickering its way through Ireland was significant. The torch came to Dublin in the same week that the British celebrated a very successful diamond jubilee that saw millions turn out to honour their queen.

The octogenarian monarch is someone I increasingly admire for her hard-working and enduring professionalism and loyalty to her country.

Queen Elizabeth has weathered many stormy days during her six decades in office, with her distant and aloof attitude to Princess Diana's death probably posing the greatest threat to her reign. But she survived and last week was feted by millions.

In her own traditional and kind of fogeyish, old-fashioned way, the queen has maintained her dignity and position in British society. That's not a bad achievement after 60 years. And that career has included an event that must surely count as a highlight in her reign.

The queen's visit to Ireland last year, along with Prince Phillip, marked a remarkable chapter in Anglo-Irish history and the forging of a new relationship between us.

As young Irish person, I never really got the British monarchy. I felt it was an outdated, undemocratic edifice that should be disbanded. But over the years I have gained a certain fondness for the British royals.

There is something comforting about all of their pomp and ceremony, especially at a time when we are going through such tumultuous changes.

There was another ironic event at play when the flame travelled from North to South. As the torch wended its way to St Stephen's Green, back in the ancient home of the Olympian flame the Greeks wrestled with the daunting prospect of economic and political implosion.

Greece may be forced out of the eurozone if the Greeks re-elect political parties that refuse to accept the bailout terms of austerity in next weekend's elections there. And the signals aren't good, with tensions mounting between the far-left and far-right parties.

Those strains were highlighted last week in a spectacular piece of live television, when a member of Greece's far-right Golden Dawn party slapped a female politician live on air.

We'll know after next weekend's elections whether his thuggish behaviour impressed the Greek voters.

Meanwhile, let's take comfort in Queen Elizabeth's stoic commitment to her job during these turbulent times.

Irish Independent

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