Saturday 19 January 2019

Every nation needs 'soft power' - our Mrs Brown has it in spades

Brendan O’Carroll in Mrs Brown’s Boys. Photo: BBC
Brendan O’Carroll in Mrs Brown’s Boys. Photo: BBC
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

I was in Paris on the day that British Prime Minister Theresa May started the procedure to withdraw the United Kingdom from the European Union - the famous "triggering of Article 50" - and the air was thick with discussion among the political classes. The theme of 'perfide Albion' came up more than once, though no one quite recalled that General de Gaulle predicted Britain would never fit into a continental club anyway.

But among ordinary folk, I didn't hear much discourse on the politics. No, what I heard people say in casual conversation in shops and cafés was: "We were so thrilled that William and Kate came to France. We really appreciated it. Such nice young people! Showing such solidarity with the Bataclan victims too." Indeed, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge had visited those wounded in the Bataclan terrorist outrage in 2015.

Actually, William had also made a speech in which he said that the relationship between Britain and France would never be adversely affected by 'Brexit' - a speech he was instructed to make, doubtless, by Mrs May's government, in the deployment of 'soft power'.

The British royals will be visiting European sites with extra dedication over the next couple of years - Charles and Camilla have just been on a 10-day trip which included both Romania and Rome (and, of course, the Pope, another skilled agency of 'soft power').

Charles, William and Harry led proceedings yesterday at the commemoration of Vimy Ridge, where the Canadians suffered huge losses in 1917, and which has become a key moment in forging Canadian modern identity.

More continental European visits are planned as part of a charm offensive. In a distraction from talk of a 'hard Brexit', Queen Elizabeth and her family will be counter-narrative representing 'soft power' to keep relations sweet, where possible, by way of the human, the cultural, the ceremonial, and sometimes the positive and the glamorous. The royals are increasingly used to soften the edges of certain hard political realities (where it is possible).

Prince Charles with French President Francois Hollande at Vimy Ridge. Photo: Getty
Prince Charles with French President Francois Hollande at Vimy Ridge. Photo: Getty

And 'soft power' can be used diplomatically, while still respecting boundaries. Charles and Camilla had a friendly chat with Pope Francis (there was a time when their respective divorces might have been an impediment), though there was no warm invitation to the Pontiff to come and visit Britain. The Pope is Argentinian and his views on the Falkland Islands - he'd call them the Malvinas - aren't quite in accordance with HMG's, though he's surely entitled to hold his patriotic opinions.

Still the friendly chat helped to ensure cordiality.

Then there's Gibraltar. Can King Felipe and the exquisitely chic Queen Letizia of Spain smooth over Spanish-British relations on their state visit to London during the summer? A challenging area for 'soft power', but it could turn out to be a useful one.

Every nation needs its version of 'soft power', and Ireland has many at its disposal. The shamrock - one of the world's most widely recognised brand images - is one such, as the ritual of presenting a St Paddy's Day bowl of shamrock in Washington demonstrates.

And even the snootiest among us must accept that a major agency of Irish 'soft power' is Brendan O'Carroll, aka Mrs Brown of the eponymous 'Mrs Brown's Boys', recently voted "best sitcom of the 21st century". Some critics find this TV phenomenon absolutely ghastly, vulgar, coarse, unoriginal (the theme first appeared in 'Old Mother Riley') and in some respects blatantly conservative - a "throwback". Like 'Father Ted', Mrs Brown's holy pictures date from the 1950s, and community life is cosily outdated.

And yet the show is greatly loved (and on those few occasions when we sceptics catch it by mistake, we may find ourselves laughing); above all, it's seen as the most adorable, benign, comforting and quintessential view of Ireland and the Irish. It is the natural inheritor not only of 'Father Ted' and 'Ballykissangel', but the blarneying charms of the late Terry Wogan.

There are other forms of 'soft power' which also work for Ireland: Daniel O'Donnell and Mary Robinson might make for strange bedfellows, but they command international 'soft power', as did the peerless Seamus Heaney. It isn't just about being popular - it's about radiating a certain benign presence and sense of trust that attracts and influences. It's not just celebrity: it's about identifying a symbol and using it imaginatively.

One of the greatest sources of Ireland's 'soft power' is - the horse. If, unusually, a Scottish horse won at Aintree on Saturday, it is nonetheless an accepted fact that wherever the horse is in focus, Ireland will be a dominant player. The world's most beautiful animals are better bred and trained in Ireland, as are many of the bravest and most accomplished jockeys. The high point of the Queen's sState visit to this country in 2011 (from her personal point of view) was visiting the National Stud.

We once had the horse on an Irish coin. What a pity we can't express the positive power of the Irish nag on a euro!

'Soft power' has always existed, but it was Princess Diana who really provided a modern masterclass in how to use it. Walking in protective gear in a minefield or cradling an African baby afflicted by HIV transmitted images of immense influence. The princess never uttered a political sentence in her short life, but her 'soft power' was often highly effective - and others have learned from her example.

Unlike the UK, Ireland is planning to host the Pope on a visit in 2018, and while there are secular voices calling for the visit to be cancelled or deferred, it would be madness to do so - akin to the madness of those who demanded the Taoiseach should not bring shamrock to President Trump. The Papacy is a universal 'soft power', and 78pc of the Republic of Ireland still describes itself as Roman Catholic. It's in the nation's interest to acknowledge that fact and embrace its links with the Holy See.

Every nation needs access to 'soft power', and agencies to deploy it. The Russians, heaven knows, have plenty of hard power, but they are well aware of the 'soft power' at their disposal through the ballet, as well as their literature and music. Nobody who loves Tchaikovsky and Chekhov could ever really hate Russia.

Irish Independent

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