Till early yesterday morning, I thought I felt generally indifferent to the prospect of the visit of Queen Elizabeth to Ireland. I knew it was a good and necessary step in the relations between these two countries, but not something I found myself emotionally involved in one way or other, just as the recent royal wedding was just another new event.
But then as I was at home, I started watching, and properly felt why it mattered. That Eamon Gilmore was there to greet her at Baldonnel, as our Minister for Foreign Affairs would with any visiting head of state. Our governments have worked closely at various levels, certainly since the 1950s, when they jointly negotiated entry to the European Communities. Eventually from 1985 with the Anglo-Irish Agreement, they acknowledged the joint interest in Northern Ireland and have worked together up the present day, with the Downing Street Declaration in 1993, the Belfast Agreement in 1998 and the St Andrew’s Agreement in 2006.
So this should have been possible before now, but because of the nature of the monarchy and its hereditary link with centuries of the past, it was naturally more sensitive. It may be customary for a visiting head of state to acknowledge our history by visiting the Garden of Remembrance, but it is of a different order for the head of state of the country from whom we won independence to do so. For Elizabeth to lay a wreath there as she did today is one of further steps in the reconciliation between our countries, continued today with her visit to one of the most notorious sites of British military outrage on the people in this part of the country, when she visits the site of Bloody Sunday ninety years ago in Croke Park.
Her visit to Trinity College, while not explicitly alluded to, should remind us of how our countries are entwined in cultural as well as political history. While two of the constituent universities of the National University of Ireland, UCC and NUIG, were originally Queen’s Colleges, established under royal charter of Victoria in 1845, as a college which in its long title¹ still refers to its foundation by her namesake in 1592, Trinity was an obvious stop on her visit. Though English-speaking Irish culture is clearly distinct from that of Britain, the influences from one to the other are undeniably strong. True too of course of American culture, but proximity naturally affects the degree. And of course as with any country, we should be particularly proud of our native culture, we should promote the distinctiveness of Gaelic culture, and its continued vibrancy, without it being seen in competition with acknowledging our links across the Irish Sea. From a personal level, it was nice to see the Hist represented there as one the few student bodies within college.
We should also be mindful of this visit with an eye to the longer-term political project in this country. In the words of the amended Article 3, “It is the firm will of the Irish Nation, in harmony and friendship, to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland, in all the diversity of their identities and traditions”. For the Unionist community, Elizabeth is their queen. That our president and government would welcome her can only serve to bring the people of this island closer. I hope that there will come a day when Northern Ireland will become part of this state. While that would mean that Unionists would lose the political connection with the British monarchy, it will be important that they would not feel that the cultural ties would thereby be lost. In this way, the visit is not just about how the two states themselves relate, but about all the people of Ireland.
Of course, the visit necessitated a major shutdown of activity in the capital. This will be a small temporary setback for those working there, and of course it would be better if Elizabeth weren’t presented with a ghost town. We won’t know how much of this was truly necessary, but from the scenes of the small numbers of violent protestors, some of whom who could find no more suitable attire than a British football jersey, there clearly had to be something measure of this. They constitute a miniscule proportion of the population, and cannot even claim to represent more than that, and in what little impact they have, in what small way they are ultimately counter-productive in achieving their stated aims, this will be overshadowed by the wider welcome she has received.
¹ College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth, near Dublin