Sunday 8 December 2019

Why most of us want to see the royals here again

Inviting them to the 1916 centenary is an expression of confidence – not neo-colonial subservience, says Eilis O'Hanlon

The Queen and President Mary Robinson at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin on May 17, 2011.
The Queen and President Mary Robinson at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin on May 17, 2011.
Sunday Independent/Millward Brown

Eilis O'Hanlon

If we carry on like this, the British are going to start getting the idea that we want them back. That's surely what hardline republicans will be thinking when they see the result of the latest Sunday Independent/Millward Brown poll, which finds strong support for the attendance of a member of the British royal family at events to commemorate the 1916 centenary.

Whatever the reason, the fact that nearly six out of 10 of us support the idea of British royals being invited to events celebrating the end of British rule, with only 30 per cent opposed, is a vindication of the surprise announcement made during President Higgins's historic State visit to Britain earlier this month that such a visit would go ahead in 2016.

Historian Diarmaid Ferriter was particularly critical at the time because, from an academic's point of view, he felt that hosting the royals would be a "distraction" from examining the real history of 1916.

He's probably right. We're good hosts. We generally try to put visitors at their ease. Surely we'll be too busy making sure our British guests don't hear or see anything that makes them uncomfortable that we'll forget what the whole event's about? The French don't pussyfoot around Bastille Day. Why should we?

Then again, what did the academics expect? Big public events are rarely based on solid history. They're all about symbolism and sentiment, and our poll suggests that most Irish people are happy with the idea of 2016 being nailed to the symbolism of reconciliation rather than resistance, the future rather than the past. They have mortgages and bills to worry about.

Maybe they just want to have a good time in 2016 and think this is the best way to do it, especially when it's increasingly ludicrous to pretend we have some traumatic disgruntlement with the UK when the truth is that millions of British and Irish interact positively every day without caring tuppence about the deeper history.

It's interesting that support for a royal presence in 2016 is highest amongst older voters, with 64 per cent of over-55s looking forward to seeing Prince Charles (most likely) in Dublin in two years' time. Older voters clearly don't have time for the passionate resentments that periodically grip the young. In fact, it may be that diluting potential ill-feeling amongst disenfranchised younger voters, who might be sucked in by cartoon republican rhetoric as 2016 approaches, was the thinking behind the royal invite – though of course, it could go either way.

There was no real focus for discontent during the Queen's recent visit, but 2016 will offer plenty of opportunities for anyone who wants to make mischief.

Thirty per cent may be a minority, but it's still a significant number of people, not all of them from the usual hard-left republican base. Here's hoping they can be won round, because there's nothing that unusual about official visitors from countries with complicated relationships paying their respects to one another's legacies.

June will see commemorations in Normandy to mark the 70th anniversary of the Allied landings on D-Day. German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be there alongside other European leaders. The idea that countries shouldn't be involved in marking historic events because they were on the losing side in particular conflicts is ridiculous. Especially when it's Britain we're talking about. Historically speaking, most of the globe has had a frosty relationship with the Brits at one time or another. Neither side denies the history, but they don't obsess over it either.

When the Queen paid a State visit to India some years ago, she made a pilgrimage to Jallianwala Bagh, scene of the infamous Amritsar massacre in 1919, when the British army opened fire on a group of unarmed peaceful Sikh protesters and hundreds were killed. She laid a wreath and took part in a minute's silence. As the Indian prime minister point- ed out to critics of the visit, the Queen wasn't even born at the time of the massacre. What happened wasn't her fault, any more than Bloody Sunday in Croke Park was. If India can deal with these tricky matters in a grown-up way, there's no reason why we can't either.

Opposition to a royal presence in 2016 is merely a resurrection of the old Irish feeling of specialism, which makes us think it must be harder for us than for other countries to deal with bad memories. We can't be held hostage by those who'd rather cling on to ancient resentments.

Thankfully, the poll shows that most of us don't have any hang-ups about these issues. Inviting the royals isn't neo-colonial subservience. It's an expression of confidence. Just because you invite someone to a party doesn't mean that it's not your party anymore.

Sunday Independent

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