Monday 23 May 2011

The past is a foreign country: The Queen's speech in Dublin

There are moments when you are aware that we are all living through History and that it can happen very quickly. At an almost bewildering rate, something which once seemed impossible and best left to the imagination of fiction writers suddenly becomes hard fact. One such moment was the speech given by Her Majesty The Queen at the official state dinner in Dublin to mark Her Majesty's visit, along with His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, to the Republic of Ireland last week. It was the first time a British Sovereign had visited the republic and the first time a British monarch had set foot on southern Irish soil since the Queen's grandfather, King George V, visited Dublin in 1911, one hundred years ago. By the time King George returned to Ireland, it was to Belfast in 1921 to formally inaugurate the new Northern Irish parliament and mark the partition of the island, the only solution available to prevent civil war - a tragedy which was not avoided in the south, where many republicans attacked the new Irish government for accepting the partition of the island.

The ghosts of Partition and civil war lingered in the air during the Queen's visit, but not too much. The ghosts, too, of those slaughtered in thirty years of Troubles in Northern Ireland, including the Duke of Edinburgh's uncle, Lord Mountbatten, murdered by an IRA bomb in 1979, could not be totally ignored. But, with the Queen and President Mary McAleese, herself born in Northern Ireland, visiting the Garden of Remembrance where the President laid a wreath for those who had fought for the independence of Ireland and the Queen laying down a wreath of poppies for the Irish men and women who had given their lives for the British Empire and for Ireland in the First World War, the ghosts of the past did not seem to make themselves heard too loudly. Which made a pleasant change. Like Argentina, Ireland has a notorious inability to let go of the past and an alleged refusal to undergo any form of historical exorcism. Sometimes, I think, forgetfulness can be no bad thing. Especially here. We're a religious country, apparently, but for many years we haven't really embraced the biblical teaching that you shouldn't blame a child for the sins of his ancestors. We cling too much to what went before us, with dates like 1641, 1649, 1690, 1798, 1847, 1912 and 1916 all spoken about as if they are moments in the recent past. And all of it carrying the dangerous, unspoken warning of "careful it doesn't happen again!" Protestant women and children might once again lie slaughtered and dashed off the rocks, Irish families will once again endure famine and be forced out onto the moors to starve. Magdalene Laundries will spring up the length and breadth of Ireland or the Black and Tans will sweep through the streets again. Who stole what from whom, who started which conflict, who has the right to be here and who doesn't, who lied, who cheated, who bombed where and when. For some reason, given the horrors that stalked Irish history, we don't like to forget. We cling too much to that which went before us. Ireland's past was, until last week, the eternal present.

And then, all of a sudden, you feel goose pimples shoot up and down your arm when the Queen begins a speech in Irish. It's then that you realise that the world has changed and that Ireland isn't a place of  ghosts, rebels, blood and loyalists. It's 2011 and it's a great place to live. It's a small country, one of the smallest of the English speaking nations, and yet its national saint's day is a holiday in one of the largest; Irish charm, hospitality, friendliness, ease of living, inappropriate sense of humour and the indefinable quality of craic is known and praised throughout the world. On both sides of the border, despite the south's current economic crisis, high standards of living are enjoyed and in the north, economic prosperity is made all the more remarkable when, as the Queen reflects, it's been just over a decade since it emerged from what was one of the most vicious political conflicts in western Europe after the Second World War. In Ireland, everyone's supposed to know what you are, who you vote for, what sports you follow and which type of passport is sitting in your bedside drawer. Our identities have all been very clearly drawn, right down to the way you pronounce the letter "h." We're pros at telling through a dozen subtle signals what type of church you pray in on a Sunday and, based on that, which national anthem you'll stand for. And then, the Queen of England speaks Irish.

The "wow" of President McAleese was pretty much my reaction too. Any attempt at staying jaded had vanished. Both ladies deserve tremendous applause for their work last week and in fostering Anglo-Irish relations. We're neighbours, not enemies. Garret Fitzgerald, the man who served as Taoiseach of Ireland in the 1980s, and who had striven to improve relations between northern and southern Ireland as well as between England and Ireland, died during the Queen's visit, but Irish newspapers are reporting that before he died he had the opportunity to see the Queen dining with the Irish President. I certainly hope it's true.

Throughout her visit, the Queen acted with grace and charm, as did President McAleese and the vast majority of the Irish public, who were keen to show the visiting British royals the (rightly) world famous Irish hospitality. The finest local produce (Guinness obviously included!), the major sites of Dublin and the Irish countryside, the premier politicians from both north and south of the border and welcoming crowds helped drown out the protests of those thirty or so hardline

The Queen's speech in Dublin was the highlight of her visit and it made me very proud of both identities I hold, as a British subject and as someone born on this side of the Irish Sea. You can, finally, feel to be both. This speech, for me, is one of my favourites and one of the Queen's best. I hope people enjoy it.


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