Tuesday 25 June 2019

Some of my best friends are Brits. Gosh.

We have now been given permission to talk to the English. Gene Kerrigan is so happy he could cry.

Irish and British people have been friends long before this state visit. ILLUSTRATION: Tom Halliday
Irish and British people have been friends long before this state visit. ILLUSTRATION: Tom Halliday
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

It appears that we're all now friends with the British. It's okay to have them to tea and to break bread in their homes. It's fine to do business and generally to rub shoulders with them – and perhaps even other parts of our anatomies. It's now permissible to be, in the words of Elizabeth of the House of Windsor, "at ease in each other's company". We're now, according to Olivia of the House of O'Leary, officially "allowed to like the British".

Well, em, I'm not trying to be difficult, or – God forbid – negative. But the fact is lots of us have, down through the years, been having tea, and even something stronger, with British people. Visiting their homes, doing business and generally mixing with them – perfectly at ease in each other's company.

A very, very fondly remembered man was appointed manager of our national football team as far back as 1986. And over the following decade, no one ever made an issue of Jack Charlton's undiluted Britishness. His in-your-face, terse North of England accent and attitude made his Britishness an appealing part of the package.

The fact that James Connolly was born in Edinburgh and James Larkin in Liverpool didn't dilute their contribution to Irish life. From Erskine Childers to Bruce Arnold to Mathew Elderfield. . .

Okay, well we shot Erskine Childers. But that was just because the Blueshirts needed someone to put up against the wall that week – they'd have shot him even if he wasn't English. And no one ever stood against a wall with more courage and grace.

Oh and we bugged Bruce's phone. But it wasn't personal, they pretty much bugged everyone's phone. And we framed Ian Bailey – but sure, we framed lots of people. You could say that being tapped and framed is a mark of one's ultimate acceptance in this society. Shot, tapped and framed. Yep, that's merely how our establishment makes you feel truly Irish.

Therefore, on a personal level, and in our unfussy acceptance in public life of people of British origin, we've long been at ease in each other's company.

So, what was all that about last week?

Well, we love our feel-good moments.

When Jack Kennedy went to Berlin in June 1963, he charmed the natives with one well-chosen feel-good moment. "Ich bin ein Berliner," says he, and they melted. How charming, to go to the trouble of learning the cupla focal in the host language. Since then, it's been a standard ice-breaking technique by visiting politicians the world over – up to and including Obama.

And when Queen Elizabeth came here in 2011 she did it to perfection.

She's an old pro, who has skilfully managed the transformation of the royal business from anachronistic leftover to thriving tourism and PR giant.

This is the hard-nosed showbiz trouper who authorised and took part in a James Bond sketch that had her apparently jumping out of a helicopter. Can you imagine anyone from the Irish establishment, in history or today, feeling so confident of their purpose in life as to take that risk with their image?

So, at a State dinner here, Elizabeth threw in the cupla focal – standard operating procedure. There was feel-good overload. Mary McAleese went "Wow!" and looked around to ensure that everyone was appreciating the uniqueness of the moment. Right then, if Elizabeth wanted to take the Liffey home to decorate the grounds of her castle at Windsor our establishment would have found a way to wrap it for her.

There have and continue to be issues of conflict. We were a small part of a big empire, we took issue with the empire's governance. Our island contains blocs, nationalist and unionist, with opposing interests – and each bloc had within it further conflicts – and this led to periods of savagery. Often the savagery was internal – the Irish/British conflict was just one part of a complex collision of forces. It was always thus across the globe – it's called history. And the Irish/British conflict, bloody as it was, was a fleabite compared to most.

President Higgins was last week taken on a trip through the pageantry machine. Queen Elizabeth has at her disposal a terrific number of palaces and castles, with fleets of fairytale coaches and endless lines of young soldiers in colourful uniforms to gaze into the distance while visitors walk past, "inspecting" them.

It's part of a carefully tuned mechanism to support British political, financial and manufacturing interests – and everyone else wishes they had something as impressive.

It was wonderfully effective last week, and given some bogus depth by the pretence that until recently we were all trying to gouge out each other's eyes.

Our establishment is somewhat immature. And given to fulsome behaviour. It's always in search of approval – not from us, we are held in contempt – from its equivalents abroad.

It's the old kiss-up, kick-down attitude.

Last week, in the midst of much feel-good mush, I re-read a 1995 article by the late Mary Holland, an outstanding British journalist who became an outstanding Irish journalist. She noted the conduct of Taoiseach John Bruton on the occasion of a visit by Prince Charles. Mary was too kind to point out that the Irish media dodged commenting on this, she merely pointed out that when the London Times finds you "embarrassingly effusive" and the Guardian is taken aback by your "extravagantly nonsensical attitudes", you really ought to get a grip.

There was a lot of mush last week, but not on the Bruton scale. And there are, of course, worse things than a feel-good machine. President Higgins, in his Guildhall speech, touched on these matters. It's "the ordinary people of Ireland, and generations yet to come", he said, who are getting it in the neck, as the wealthy stabilise public finances and seek to reduce "the astounding levels of public debt incurred from rescuing our banks".

It really isn't done, Michael, to link the banker bailout with such things as the ambulance debacle.

People become ill, they wait, the ambulance doesn't come, they die. Mustn't link paying gamblers' debts with the 17 per cent cut in ambulances, the gross drop in service, the consequent tragedies.

Mustn't link the paying of other people's debts to similar cuts throughout the public service, with similar consequences. Much better to philosophise about our Irish identity. Much better to think positive.

Last week, Peter Mathews TD, who has consistently made useful points about banking, offered Michael Noonan "a little paper that you might find helpful as a starting point for the banking inquiry".

Noonan was maybe eight seats away, so Mathews walked the few feet and handed him the paper.

The Ceann Comhairle had a conniption. "Totally out of order," he kept repeating, growling about Standing Orders and threatening to report Mathews – all the while jabbing his finger at the TD. A gesture my mother raised me to believe is rude.

Mathews can be trying, at times, but he's an elected TD, seeking to be helpful in his own way. This is the other side of the Irish establishment, the one not on display to Her Majesty. Concerned with petty breaches of etiquette, impolite, negative.

Meanwhile, according to the RTE news website: "Mr Noonan gave the document to an official and said under his breath, 'Put that in the bottom drawer'."

Sunday Independent

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