Magazine

The Queen in Ireland: Why royal visit had to wait

  • 16 May 2011
  • From the section Magazine
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Montage of George V and Queen Elizabeth II

The Queen is the first British monarch to visit what is today known as the Republic of Ireland in 100 years, but is this a sign of the end of centuries of resentment, asks historian Diarmaid Ferriter.

When the Queen's grandfather, King George V, arrived in Dublin in July 1911 he subsequently recorded his "feelings of joy and affection" inspired by the "wonderful reception" he was given by people lining the streets.

Over the course of the next decade, however, the political situation in Ireland was transformed, as were Anglo-Irish relations. It was the events of these tumultuous years, incorporating the War of Independence of 1916-21 and the quest for an Irish Republic, that meant 100 years would have to pass before the next visit.

In the midst of this war, the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 created a separate parliament for the six counties of Northern Ireland, partitioning the island in order to provide a solution to the problem of unionist opposition to any inclusion in an independent Ireland.

King George V's visit to Ireland was the last by a British monarch for 100 years

The following year, the Anglo-Irish Treaty allowed for the creation of a 26-county Free State of southern Ireland within the British Empire. Of all the treaty's provisions, the inclusion of an oath of allegiance to the British Crown to be taken by Irish parliamentarians was perhaps the most bitter, emotive and divisive and prompted civil war.

This did not mean that southern Ireland was not interested in the British monarchy. The interest has always been there and has remained - 1.3m people in Ireland watched the recent wedding of Kate and William.

Royal fascination

Historically, the enthusiasm with which royals such as Queen Victoria, King Edward VII and King George V were greeted surpassed expectations and hostile nationalist opinion.

The geographic and cultural closeness of Britain and Ireland, the constant traffic of people between the two islands, the formal Act of Union of 1800, Dublin's one time status as a significant city in the British Empire and the desire for some pomp and pageantry on its streets meant that there was a continued fascination with the royal family.

In 1999, Irish writer Mark Hederman recalled his mother's preoccupation with the Wallis-Simpson/ King Edward VIII abdication crisis of 1936. She was well informed about the scandal despite something of a news blackout in Ireland.

"When my mother began to tell people at parties in Dublin they thought she was off her head," Hederman wrote. "Being a conscientious Catholic, she asked a Jesuit priest whether it was libel, detraction or scandal to be spreading news that was common knowledge in America but completely unknown over here. 'I'm not quite sure which it is,' he said, 'but it's very interesting. Tell me more.'"

One of the best selling books in Ireland in the 1930s was a handbook of the coronation of King George VI, and a number of private screenings of the coronation of the Queen were arranged in different parts of the country in the summer of 1953.

When Irish nationalists gained ground politically, affection for the royals went underground.

Resentment

Those controlling the republican narrative also generally overlooked the tradition of Irish service in the British Army. More than 200,000 Irishmen fought in World War I and service in the British Army was a common family tradition, and was not seen by many as involving either a pro-British or anti-Irish stance. But such nuanced identities were, until more recently, conveniently ignored.

The civil war of 1922-23 left Irish society divided

The partition of Ireland and the subsequent establishment of the sovereignty of the new 26-county state in the 1930s witnessed nationalist Ireland adopt a constitution that jettisoned any reference to the British Crown and contained a territorial claim over Northern Ireland - eventually the 26 counties left the Commonwealth with the declaration of the Republic in 1949.

Given the political consensus about this exit from the Commonwealth, an international anti-partition tour by the country's leading politician Eamon de Valera, and a subsequent IRA campaign against British rule in Northern Ireland - the IRA border campaign of 1956-62 - the political environment in Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s was not remotely conducive to a royal visit.

The Northern Irish state was policed by the overwhelmingly Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary and with the outbreak of the Troubles at the end of the 1960s and the arrival of British soldiers, the activities of Crown forces created huge nationalist and republican resentment, just as they had during the War of Independence.

At times, this resentment was as intense south of the border; after Bloody Sunday in January 1972, when British troops from the Parachute Regiment killed 14 unarmed men taking part in a civil rights demonstration in Derry, protesters in Dublin attacked and set ablaze the British Embassy.

A combination of these factors meant that any British royal presence in the 26 counties would not be politically possible or desirable.

The institution of the monarchy, because of its association with British military endeavour in Ireland, as distinct from the British people, came to represent for unionists, a touchstone of their loyalty to the United Kingdom but for nationalists, an emblem of unwelcome intervention.

Hostile references to it were presented in the context of historic claims of British monarchy to involvement and control of Irish affairs and a desire to coax the Irish out of their perceived irrational faith (Catholicism) and political allegiances, stretching back to the 12th Century and involving occupation, plantation, war and sectarian strife at various stages.

Steps to peace

Such claims continued to be relevant into the 20th Century in what became a long, seemingly intractable Northern Irish conflict. One of the victims was Lord Mountbatten, an uncle of Prince Philip, and someone closely linked to the twilight years of the British Empire, who was assassinated by the IRA in Sligo in 1979.

It was not until the end of the 20th Century that a diplomatic thaw emerged, in the context of the peace process. Irish President Mary Robinson played her part in 1996 at Westminster Cathedral, by laying a wreath to commemorate the estimated 35,000 Irish who died in World War I and subsequently lunched with the Queen at Buckingham Palace.

Her successor President Mary McAleese took things a step further in 1998 when she stood alongside Queen Elizabeth to commemorate the Irish war dead of all traditions at the island of Ireland peace park at Messines in Belgium. Nothing like that was possible during the Troubles.

Lord Mountbatten was assassinated in Ireland in 1979

The impending visit was not deemed politically feasible until the peace process was bedded down, a process that included the abandonment by the republic of its territorial claim to Northern Ireland, and notwithstanding the ugly threats of the minority dissident republican groups, it essentially represents the success of that process.

The fact that the Queen will visit both the Islandbridge memorial in Dublin, commemorating the Irish who died in the service of the British Army, and the Garden of Remembrance, commemorating those who fought for Irish independence against the British empire, is an indication of the attempt to recognise, and respect, the different allegiances on the island.

Her visit to Croke Park is a significant act of reconciliation on both sides.

This is hallowed turf for Irish nationalists - headquarters of the Gaelic Athletic Association, and the place where British soldiers massacred 14 unarmed spectators in 1920 after the IRA had killed 14 British intelligence agents.

This is a visit from one head of state to another, as diplomatic equals, but there will be opposition to the visit by Republican Sinn Fein - which, unlike mainstream Sinn Fein, rejects the peace process - on the grounds of continued partition and because in its words: "The Queen of England is head of the British state which has brought only starvation, repression and suffering to the Irish people."

There are others who find the prospect of the Queen visiting the Garden of Remembrance and Croke Park difficult to stomach given their strong allegiance to the ideals and sacrifices of the republicans who fought Crown forces during the War of Independence to achieve a united Ireland.

But at a senior political and diplomatic level, the preferred narrative now, and one accepted by most, is the one adopted by Bertie Ahern in May 2007, when he was the first Irish Taoiseach to address the Houses of Parliament: "No two nations and no two peoples have closer ties of history and geography and of family and friendship…we are now in a new era of agreement… solidarity has made us stronger. Reconciliation has brought us closer."

Expect more of that kind of rhetoric during the royal visit as an attempt is made to bury some of the historic enmities.

Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at University College Dublin and author of The Transformation of Ireland 1900-2000