Wednesday, 9 April 2014

The United Kingdom, Ireland and President Higgins' State Visit

His Excellency the President of Ireland (or, in Irish Gaelic, a Shoilse an t-Uachtarán na hÉireann) yesterday made the first ever formal state visit by an Irish head of state to the United Kingdom, being Her Majesty's guest at Windsor Castle. Both the President and the Queen made speeches, with the Queen's speech being particularly enjoyable for monarchists due to her beginning by paying tribute to the "greatest of Ireland's High Kings," Brian Boru, who died in battle one hundred years ago this month. The High King, who styled himself "Emperor of the Irish," was tragically killed by fleeing Norsemen as they stumbled upon his tent after he led Irish forces to victory against them in the Battle of Clontarf. His death was one of those fateful moments which may well have altered the course of history in ways we cannot guess, and Ireland collapsed once more into a loose association of squabbling petty kingdoms.

George VI, the last King of Ireland
Of course, the final monarch of all Ireland was the Queen's own father, His Majesty King George VI, who was monarch of both Northern Ireland (as part of the United Kingdom) and what is now the Republic of Ireland (then the Irish Free State) until 1949. Today, unfortunately, monarchy is regarded in Ireland as permanently "tainted" by association with British colonial rule. Ironically, Sinn Féin itself was once a staunchly monarchist party calling for a dual monarchy in the British Isles based on the model of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This only changed following the Easter Rising, the leadership of which were much more radical than the then-leadership of Sinn Féin. Unfortunately the rising was mislabelled as an "Sinn Féin Rising" by the press, Sinn Féin members were unfairly blamed and persecuted, and nationalists rallied under the banner of Sinn Féin calling for an independent Irish Republic; all of this, despite King George V personally criticising the Government's response to the Rising.

1826 oil painting of the Battle of Clontarf, by Hugh Frazer
I could go into more detail about my thoughts on the Easter Rising, and on subsequent Irish history; in some future post I probably will do so. However, what is past is past- the core message of both Her Majesty and President Higgins' speeches yesterday- and now is a time for looking to the future. Although it is, to my mind, regrettable that history did not transpire differently and that Ireland is not today a united, self-governing kingdom in personal union with Great Britain and with Queen Elizabeth II as its beloved High Queen, the state visit yesterday and the Queen's recent state visit to Ireland are encouraging signs of rapprochement between the Republic and the United Kingdom. The only blot in the landscape as I see it was the presence of Martin McGuinness, currently Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and former Chief of Staff of the Irish Republican Army. The fact that this terrorist who was among the IRA's leadership when they murdered the Queen's cousin Lord Mountbatten (a memorial to whom the President visited and laid a wreath at yesterday) was allowed to sit at Her Majesty's table does not sit comfortably with me, nor do I expect it sits comfortably with the survivors and families of the victims of the IRA's terror campaigns; especially so soon after there was public outrage over the pardon of IRA members who took part in terrorist activities, including John Downey, a suspect in the 1982 Hyde Park bombing, who was handed a pardon as the result of an "error." Meanwhile, a paratrooper involved in the events of "Bloody Sunday" complains that a promise of anonymity he received in return for giving detailed evidence in a previous enquiry has been revoked by a new police inquiry.

Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland, meets Her Majesty the Queen and
His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh
Despite this controversy, on the whole the Uachtarán's state visit- I think I prefer the Irish name to the English word, although Ard Rí would be preferable- has been a success. Hopefully more such visits will follow, and in time past wounds will heal as the peoples of the British Isles become not merely good neighbours, but steadfast friends and allies. As Mr. Higgins, a poet and clearly a natural one, put it, "Ireland and Britain live in both the shadow and in the shelter of one another, and so it has been since the dawn of history. We celebrate what has been achieved but we must also constantly renew our commitment to a process that requires vigilance and care."

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