Friday 13 December 2019

New love affair with Britain shouldn't shape how we plan to mark the Rising anniversary

President Michael D Higgins in conversation with Queen Elizabeth before the historic state banquet in Windsor Castle.
President Michael D Higgins in conversation with Queen Elizabeth before the historic state banquet in Windsor Castle.

Gerard O'Regan

Those giddy moments at the start of the love affair simply could not continue. As is the way with these things, mutual infatuation had to give way to a more sober and reflective kind of relationship. And so it is in these Easter days, with their echo of momentous moments in our history, we can reflect yet again on how the British and ourselves should try and chart new pathways.

The President is now back in the Aras, and the queen is presumably ensconced in one of her castles, attending to sundry regal matters. The sum of what was said and done during their get-together has indeed altered British-Irish relations forever. To quote a certain WB Yeats: "All changed, changed utterly.''

But so much happened shrouded in the emotion of the moment, it is understandable sooner rather than later there would be a more dispassionate reappraisal of the visit and an effort to put certain matters into context. This has now happened following the suggestion – made during the visit – that members of the royal family should attend events marking the 1916 centenary in two years time.

This week there were some high-profile dissenting voices. The historian Diarmaid Ferriter, warned that wanting to have the royals at the commemoration ceremonies "smacks of a post-colonial inferiority complex".

The core of his argument is that absolute historical objectivity, regarding the reality of Anglo-Irish relations a century ago, should be maintained. We should commemorate the way things were – not the way we might have wished them to be.

Such considered comments are a reminder that the complexity of the Irish-British relationship can never be taken for granted. It will continue to be multi-layered and at times complex. The forging of new bonds must remain a work in progress. This current debate is also a reminder we need to give much thought as to how we mark the 1916 centenary – there are sensitivities on many sides which must be deftly considered.

It has been argued that when we marked the 50th anniversary of the Rising back in 1966, it involved a glorification of the physical force tradition in Irish nationalism. There are even those who suggest the emotion that occasion generated, may have been one of the strands which spurred on to the growth of militant nationalism in the North.

This would erupt only a few years later.

But looking back at some of the old black and white footage, as Irish Army soldiers marched past the GPO, Ireland seems to have been a more vulnerable and innocent place back then. How was anybody to know that a 30-year conflagration in Northern Ireland was already simmering to the boil?

Fifty years later – and with a vibrant peace process on the march – we can hopefully discuss matters of national identity in a more calm and confident way. This should be in sharp contrast to the nervous insecurity which surrounded a still young state in the mid-1960s. Given this new maturity, it is most important those who feel their Irishness most keenly should have the self-assurance to ensure it is expressed in an inclusive a way as is possible.

Therefore the hope must be that when we mark 100 years on from the reading of the Proclamation on the GPO steps, there will be a sense of having arrived in a new place. On the question of national identity, the Republic of Ireland is now more at ease with itself than at any time in its history. That should surely help us embrace diversity and difference.

So it is good we are having this discussion. We have two years to ensure the 1916 centenary – while maintaining the rigour of objective historical reality – might also acknowledge some elements of the British and the Unionist traditions. If some years ago the leaders of France and Germany could hold hands at the site of the battle of Verdun – scene of so much wartime slaughter between the countries – surely anything is possible.

On another front, much is afoot in the faultline between nationalism and unionism these days – the ferment of change is surely unstoppable. Only this week DUP leader Peter Robinson told his party they should be trying to win votes from Catholics who want to maintain the union with Britain.

"In the long term elections will not just be about counting heads, but about winning arguments," said the one-time hard man of the sectarian divide.

All changed, changed utterly.

Irish Independent

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