Normalizing Ireland

Picture of George V’s visit to Dublin in 1911 – from The Guardian

In just two days, Queen Elizabeth II will be arriving in Dublin – just a few hours after I leave for Berlin.  I am actually quite happy to be missing the royal visit, and that other semi-royal visit of President Obama returning to the country of (a few of) his ancestors.  But American presidents have visited Ireland before, and despite attempts by the press and the Irish government to cast it as inter-stitial business as usual, the Queen’s visit is actually quite a big deal.  The last British monarch to visit Ireland was King George V in 1911- which means that no British monarch has ever visited the Republic of Ireland. Put another way, no British monarch has ever visited the 26 counties when they didn’t belong to the British empire.
The range of responses to the Queen’s visit is fairly broad.  The establishment seems to be bending over backwards to convince both the Irish people and the world that the visit is a certified Good Thing.  Speaking to the Guardian, tánaiste Eamon Gilmore (the tánaiste is the deputy to the taoisach, who is the leader of the Irish government) said “She is the head of state of a neighbouring country and state visits are very much part of what we do. She will get a very warm welcome. Her visit will herald a much more normal relationship between Ireland and the UK.”  RTÉ is running a program tonight on the life of the Queen, which looks to be about how QEII is really a nice normal lady who happens to be a Windsor.

Protest website associated with the Cork English Market

I think that a lot of people who bother to think about the visit at all, wonder if there can ever be a normal relationship between Ireland and the UK. I also don’t think that acknowledging how complicated the Anglo-Irish relationship is, is a bad thing.  After all, for many in the 26 counties of the republic and the 6 counties in Northern Ireland, a British presence in the North is considered an unwarranted military occupation.  The security arrangements that are being taken to protect the Queen point to the ways in which this is not a normal state visit.  The press has widely discussed whether it is wise for the Queen to visit the Garden of Remembrance which honours those who died “for the cause of Irish freedom,” especially in light of promises made by Republican groups to occupy the garden and surrounding areas in the days before the visit.  Of even greater concern is her proposed visit to Croke Park, where in 1920, British troops took the field in armored vehicles and fired into the crowd watching a Gaelic football match, in retaliation for IRA killings of British intelligence officials earlier in the day.  As The Guardian noted “It is not so very long since no Briton could have set foot there, let alone a British monarch.”
There are people – I have met people – who remember living in an Ireland where British colonialism was real, often brutally so.  Although the generation who lived through the Irish war for independence is now mostly dead, there are still OAPs who were children in the 1920s, and who grew up in an occupied 26 counties.  Although these wounds are rawer and more recent in the North, where the events of ‘Bloody Sunday’ and the hunger strikes have very present repercussions – to assume that they are healed in the Republic is, I think naive.
One of the themes in news reports leading up to the Queen’s visit is the importance of memory and anniversary in Irish culture.  Assertions that the Irish are obsessed with the past has overtones of accused mysticism that are very much part of a political tradition where the Irish are cast as dreamers or as unnecessarily mired in the history of their country.  I think that some of these tropes, particularly the seething anti-British Irishman clutching at resentment that has (nominally) been laid to rest in the Northern Irish peace process effectively obscures some of the very real concerns that some people have about what it means for a British monarch to visit Ireland without making some move to atone for British sins.
In contrast to mainstream normalization, Éirigí, a political group that trends younger than many Republican movements, and which calls for “a socialist [Irish] republic” presents this list of questions about the royal visit:

  • Why should the people of Ireland be expected to welcome the head of state of a country that continues to occupy the Six Counties? 
  • What message does this visit send from the Twenty-Six Counties to those who live under the British occupation in the Six Counties? 
  • Why should upwards of €20,000,000 be spent hosting such a controversial state visit at a time of unprecedented economic depression? 
  • Is this visit really about improving relations between the peoples of Ireland and Britain, or is it about reinforcing the British occupation?”

I understand the impulse to normalize this visit – an impulse I imagine is in service of limiting violent protests – but rather than talk about it as if it were simply a long overdue formality, I think it would be well for those claiming ‘no big deal’ to actually engage with the arguments of people who oppose it.  To dismiss their objections as wrong headed or mired in the problems of the past is to disregard a historical relationship very much at the heart of modern Ireland, and a missed opportunity for people with very different ideas about the place of Ireland in the British archipelago, in Europe and in the world to honestly debate Ireland’s future.

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