ACCESS UPDATE: ‘ONE SMALL STEP FOR MA’AM’ – THE QUEEN IN IRELAND
“One small step for ma’am …” – The Queen in Ireland by Richard Burgess Published 17 June, 2011
A little white-haired old lady in a green coat and clutching a black handbag gingerly makes her way down the steps from the aircraft that has just arrived at Casement Aerodrome outside Dublin. With a grandmotherly smile she looks about her and steps onto the tarmac. If you zoom in on her, you might be forgiven for thinking that you are witnessing the arrival of an elderly tourist, or perhaps the return of an Irish ex-patriot to the land of her childhood. But zoom out and you will see the bigger picture: the man in uniform at the foot of the steps, his arm frozen in a military salute, the welcoming committee of dignitaries waiting at a distance and, beyond them, the ranks of soldiers standing to attention. The visitor is none other than HRH Queen Elizabeth II, and there is heavy symbolism in every detail of the occasion, from the name of the aerodrome down to the colour of her coat. As the BBC’s Ireland correspondent, Mark Simpson, wittily put it, borrowing from the famous words of Neil Armstrong, “It’s one small step for ma’am, one giant leap for British-Irish relations”.
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip arrive in Dublin. (AFP PHOTO / Chris Jackson / POOL)
For outsiders, and indeed for some Irishmen and Britons too, it is difficult to understand why the event should be seen as so significant. After all, a head of state visiting a neighbouring country, a fellow member of the EU with which there are deep economic and cultural ties – why should that be such a big deal? And why has it taken over a century to happen?
The answer, of course, lies in history. And history is a serious business in Ireland. The victories and defeats, the humiliations and atrocities of Ireland’s history, particularly in its dealings with its neighbour across the Irish Sea, continue to resound today, shaping people’s attitudes, political decisions and daily lives. In his song The Island singer-songwriter Paul Brady describes this Irish wish to move forward by looking backwards as “trying to carve tomorrow from a tombstone”. In a way the Queen’s visit to Ireland fits this pattern. Intended to bring Anglo-Irish relations a step further, it could only do so by dealing with the ghosts of the past. Tombstones, real and metaphorical, played an important role in her visit.
The last visit to Dublin by a British monarch was in 1911 by the present Queen’s grandfather, George V. On that occasion, the King was visiting not a neighbouring sovereign state, but a part of his own realm. Ireland had been officially joined in union with Great Britain in 1801, but had effectively been under British sovereignty for much longer. Henry VIII (picture) proclaimed himself King of Ireland in 1541, and English monarchs flexed their muscles in the country as early as the 12th century. But it was not just military might that brought Ireland under the domination of its neighbour. In the 16 th and 17th centuries large numbers of settlers came from England and Scotland, tempted by the offer of land taken from the native Irish population. These settlers were English- or Scots-speaking, unlike the Irish, who spoke Irish (also called Gaelic), and they were Protestant, while the Irish were Catholic. These “plantations”, as they were called, were spread all over the country, but were particularly concentrated in Ulster in the north. In the turbulent 17th century, when religious wars engulfed Europe, the Catholic Irish paid a heavy price for their support for the losing side in civil wars involving England and Scotland as well as 2
Ireland, suffering brutal defeat and humiliation at the hands of Oliver Cromwell. By the end of the century the Irish found themselves second-class citizens in their own land, their native leaders dead or in exile, their land confiscated, their religion and language suppressed. In the two centuries that followed, Ireland came increasingly to be seen as Britain’s back yard; a remote and rather backward part of the United Kingdom, most useful for growing food for English tables and for supplying soldiers for service in the colonies. When in the middle of the 19 th century the Irish potato crops failed, causing the death by starvation of as many as a million people, and the emigration of perhaps two million more, the authorities in London were slow to react, seeing the famine as further proof of Irish backwardness. Resentment of what was seen as British indifference to what was called the Great Famine has lived on for generations.
Irish crofters at the time of the famine (Corbis/Scanpix)
In spite of this, opposition to British rule in Ireland the 19th century was sporadic and ineffectual. Whatever today’s hard-line republicans might like to pretend, the history of Ireland’s relationship with Britain and its monarchy has not only been a tale of resentment and conflict. On the four 3
occasions when Queen Victoria visited Ireland, she was greeted by enthusiastic crowds. After his visit in 1911 George V described how he and Queen Mary “had been welcomed with a spontaneity and hearty loyalty that has greatly touched our hearts”. For many Irish, Catholics included, loyalty to the Crown was not necessarily incompatible with being proud to be Irish, as shown by the large number of Irishmen to serve in the British army. Even today there is still an interest in the Royal Family among ordinary Irishmen. An estimated 1.3 million Irishmen watched the recent royal wedding on television, for example. Had independence come easily and peacefully to Ireland, the centuries of suppression and colonisation might well have been forgiven and forgotten – much as Norway has forgiven and forgotten its long domination by its nearest neighbours. The Queen’s visit would perhaps have been no more controversial than a visit to Oslo by Queen Margrethe of Denmark. But the birth of an independent, sovereign Ireland was neither easy nor peaceful. It was a traumatic and bloody process, and one that is not over yet.
But let us return to Queen Elizabeth II of England, who has only just reached the foot of the aircraft steps to tread on the tarmac of Casement Aerodrome. The aerodrome is named after Roger Casement, an Irish nationalist executed by the British for treason in 1916 after he had tried to smuggle arms from Germany during the First World War. The arms were intended for Irish nationalists preparing an uprising against the British. His trial aroused enormous attention at the time since it was closely connected to events unfolding in the same year, namely the so-called Easter Rising. This was a bold but hopeless attempt by Irish nationalists to lead a general uprising in Dublin. Poorly planned and wildly over-ambitious, the Easter Rising gained little support amongst most Dubliners at the time.
Dubliners gather outside to look at the ruins of Sackville Street, damaged during the Easter Rising of 1916.
However, the brutal way in which the uprising was crushed, and the later execution of its leaders, turned out to be much more damaging to the British than the event itself. Irish opinion changed from hostility to widespread sympathy, with increasing support for the Irish Republican Army (IRA). In the War of Independence that followed, British forces found themselves up against an elusive enemy that used guerrilla tactics involving assassinations, ambushes and attacks on police barracks. By 1922 it had become clear to the British government that the demand for Irish independence had to be dealt with politically rather than militarily, and a treaty was signed bringing the War of Independence to an end.
Waiting for the Queen at the foot of the aircraft steps, neatly dressed in pastel pink, stands Mary McAleese, President of Ireland. Let us stop to consider her personal background, which illustrates some of the complications of Anglo-Irish relations. Mrs McAleese was born and brought up in the Ardoyne district of Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, and as such she was once a subject of Her Majesty’s. (In fact, she still is, if she wants to be. She probably doesn’t.) But the Republic of Ireland extends full rights of citizenship to the population of the six counties of Ireland that remain under British rule.
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II with President Mary McAleese arrive at Dublin Castle for a State Dinner (Camera Press)
The division of the country – or Partition, as it is usually known – came about as a result of the
treaty we just mentioned. In it, an Irish Free State was established, a self-governing dominion within the British Commonwealth, on much the same lines as Canada or Australia at that time. However, the Irish Free State included only 26 of the 32 counties of Ireland. Six counties in the North, where Loyalist Protestants were in the majority and had mobilised to protect their own interests, remained part of the United Kingdom.
The Anglo-Irish treaty was a compromise, and one that divided the republican nationalist movement in two: those that accepted it and those who would accept nothing less than a united, fully independent Ireland. Disagreement quickly turned into a vicious civil war that pitched former comrades-in-arms against each other, and even divided families. (If you haven’t read “The Sniper” in Passage, now is the time to do so!) The war lasted less than a year, after which the nocompromise faction agreed to cease hostilities. But the divisions it caused continued to dominate Irish politics. The status of Irish Free State was felt by many to be unsatisfactory. After all, members of the Irish parliament still had to swear an oath of allegiance to the British monarch. In 1937 a new constitution was introduced that supposedly replaced the monarch with a president as head of state. Supposedly – in fact, the constitution was a little ambivalent on that point, and it was only in 1948 that Ireland was declared, unequivocally, to be a republic. It severed all remaining links to Britain by withdrawing from the Commonwealth.
In the north of the Ireland, the legacy of the Anglo-Irish treaty was a new political entity called Northern Ireland. Here the Catholic population were a minority, while all political and most economic power lay in the hands of the Unionist (and Protestant) majority. Like so many randomly drawn boundaries, it was quick solution that was bound to lead to trouble. It was this trouble – or rather, these Troubles – that led to Mrs McAleese and her family moving south of the border after they were forced out of their home by Loyalists in 1972. The Troubles is the name given to a period of unrest and violence that dominated the headlines from the late sixties until 1998. It started when civil rights marches, modelled on those in the US, were met with violence both by the Protestant majority and by security forces. This played into the hands of militant republicans, chiefly the IRA, who started a campaign directed at pushing the British out of Northern Ireland, using the well-proven methods learned in the War of Independence. The army, which
Protestant mural in Belfast
had first been brought in to protect the beleaguered Catholic minority, found themselves fighting a hopeless war, further complicated by the emergence of paramilitary groups on the Loyalist side too.
Around 3500 people died as a result of the Troubles, most of them civilians. Few families were left untouched by the conflict, which left what had always been a divided society almost completely polarised. Bombings, shootings and tit-for-tat murders dominated the headlines. Parts of Belfast became virtual “no-go areas”, ruled by paramilitary groups from one side of the other, while daily life became a constant struggle with bomb scares, security checks and searches. In an interview with the North Belfast News, Mary McAleese describes how it felt to grow up in an environment of sectarian violence, as the only Catholic family on a Protestant street.
"It was chaotic and appalling and from then on there was the tensions in the streets, the fear, the anger, the sense of lostness, the sense of being isolated, marginalised, unfree, the sense that we were always vulnerable. Then from attacks that were not meant to be lethal they got more serious. Our house was on a corner, we were attacked so many times I've given up counting or even thinking about it, frankly I find it easier not to recall these memories. Our neighbour Gerry Kelly was murdered, our great friend Peter Lane was murdered. Gerry Kelly ran the sweet shop up the road from us and you know what kids are like with a sweetshop, we had the man tormented, every time we got sixpence we were up there getting a lucky bag. He was just the most pleasant man on the planet and they went in and shot him dead. From then on I think my parents had a view that really our days were numbered. But where would you go with nine kids? What were your options? They started to farm the kids out to relations and then the inevitable happened. They came to the house with machine guns and we had to leave."1
”Unfinished business with North Belfast” Belfastmedia.com Retrieved 12 June 2011
The violence was not confined to Northern Ireland. In the 1970s and 80s the IRA brought their bombing campaign to mainland Britain, targeting town centres and pubs as well as army barracks and figures of authority. In 1984 Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher narrowly escaped assassination in an attack on the Conservative Party’s national conference, while her successor John Major was the target of an unsuccessful rocket attack on Downing Street in 1991.
After a reception at the official residence of the Irish President (once the home of viceroys overseeing British rule in Ireland), the Queen’s first port of call was a wreath laying ceremony at the Garden of Remembrance, a garden “dedicated to those who gave their lives in the cause of Irish freedom”, according to the inscription. Here the Queen stood alongside the President and bowed her head in respect to the leaders of the Easter Rising that her grandfather’s government had had executed 95 years earlier. It was moving moment that many Irishmen thought they would never see – the British monarch, symbolic head of the old enemy, showing respect to Irish nationalist martyrs. The incongruity of the event was accentuated by the stillness that followed. Due to the extraordinary security arrangements, there were none of the usual “royal walkabouts” on this visit – far from it. The royal cortege passed through streets that were deserted except for security forces. The crowds that did assemble – both those supporting the visit and those protesting against it – were kept at such a distance that the Queen might have been forgiven for thinking that ordinary Dubliners had left for the day.
Strangest of all was the silence of Croke Park, the stadium for Ireland’s Gaelic sports. The Queen’s visit here was, like the rest of her visit, rich in symbolism. In 1920, during the War of Independence, 14 people were killed here when British soldiers opened fire on the crowd during a Gaelic football match. 80 were injured. The tragedy, which became known as Bloody Sunday, came on the same day that 13 British military intelligence officers and Secret Service agents had been assassinated by the IRA and illustrates perfectly the awful spiral of violence that was so typical of 20th century Irish history: unarmed bystanders paying the ultimate price for actions carried out by armed combatants. The sight of the Queen of the United Kingdom walking on the turf of what has since become a shrine to Irish nationalism and identity was enough to make many Irishmen rub their eyes in disbelief.
At a state dinner held later that day at Dublin Castle, the Queen caused jaws to drop yet again when she started her speech in Irish. The ancient Gaelic language of Ireland, suppressed throughout centuries of British rule and banned from use in schools, was on the verge of extinction by the end of the 19th century. With independence, however, Irish became an important vehicle of national identity, spoken as a mother tongue by very few but of enormous symbolic significance. (Any speech by leaders of Sinn Fein, the leading nationalist party in Northern Ireland, will always contain a token sentence or two in Irish.) So it came as a surprise when Her Majesty opened her speech by saying “A hUachtarain agus a chairde” (“President and friends”), before reverting to English: “Prince Philip and I are delighted to be here, and to experience at first hand Ireland’s world-famous hospitality.” In the rest of her speech the Queen spoke of the “heartache, turbulence and loss” of Anglo-Irish history, adding that “these events have touched us all, many of us personally, and are a painful legacy.” These were not just empty phrases on the Queen’s part. Not only has she been targeted indirectly through a bomb attack on her official bodyguard, the Household Cavalry, in which 11 officers were killed, she has suffered a loss within her own family. In 1979 Prince Philip’s favourite uncle, Lord Mountbatten, a key figure of the British establishment and a mentor for the heir to the throne Prince Charles, was killed by an IRA bomb while on holiday in Ireland.
But the main focus of the Queen’s banquet speech was on the progress in Anglo-Irish relations made in recent years in connection with the peace process in Northern Ireland. “A knot of history” had been “painstakingly loosened”, she said. The process that brought about an end to the Troubles and saw the IRA declare a ceasefire and turn in their weapons in return for a crosscommunity power-sharing executive in the North was achieved by close cooperation between British and Irish governments. This involved a willingness on both sides to go beyond established positions and agree on fundamental principles for the future of Northern Ireland, respecting the wishes of the people and denying any claim on the province beyond that. “The lessons of the peace process are clear,” the Queen said. “Whatever life throws at us, our individual responses will be stronger for working together and sharing the load.”
However, not everybody in Dublin during her visit shared the Queen’s eagerness to let bygones be bygones and to look forward to a common future. A vocal minority, some of whom were arrested by riot police, felt that the Queen’s presence on the hallowed ground of the Croke Park and the 9
Garden of Remembrance was an insult rather than an honour, and that her visit should never have taken place. For these people Irish independence is unfinished business: Six counties of Ireland have still not been returned to their rightful owners. The peace process has made no difference to this key fact. The most hard-line of these protesters talk of a sell-out by republican leaders and favour a return to a military campaign. Such people are few, but that does not mean that they are not able to influence developments. In recent years groups such as the Real IRA and Continuity IRA, claiming to represent the proud tradition of those leaders that the Queen bowed her head to, have shown they are willing kill and maim to achieve their ends. Northern Ireland remains a divided society and the scars of recent conflicts are only just below the surface. It would not be the first time in Irish history that armed men with a deep conviction have been allowed to set the agenda.
In any conflict, the road to a
The Eirigi republican group held a protest against the visit of Queen Elizabeth ll to Ireland during the state banquet in Dublin Castle.
peaceful resolution is never straightforward. There is an Irish joke in which a tourist gets lost driving through a tiny village in one of the more isolated parts of the country and stops to ask a local the way to Dublin. The local stands 10
in thought for a while and replies: “Well, if I was trying to get to Dublin, I don’t think I’d start from here.” It is a feeling that the participants in the peace process must have had many times: How is it possible to reach a satisfactory solution to a conflict today that is so rooted in the mistakes of the past?
The Queen’s small step onto the tarmac of Casement Aerodrome was indeed an important symbolic event that shows how the political realities of Anglo-Irish relations have changed in the last decade. It will doubtless contribute to an atmosphere of mutual respect between neighbours. But the legacy of colonialism and partition is still there, both in the mind and on the ground. The rocky road to Dublin will require a few more steps yet.
The curriculum for this English course states that you should be able to drøfte lange og språklig krevende tekster med samfunnsfaglig perspektiv. With that in mind, discuss the following six questions. The first three may be answered in writing.
1) “The people of Northern Ireland should be able to decide their future for themselves.” This sounds like a fairly uncontroversial statement, and yet it is on that has provoked, and still provokes, strong disagreement and conflict. Explain why.
2) In a parliamentary democracy the role of the monarch is essentially symbolic. With the Queen’s visit to Ireland in mind, discuss whether the monarch could still be said to have influence on events.
3) The text refers to how events in Irish history “continue to resound today, shaping people’s attitudes, political decisions and daily lives”. Which events from Norwegian history do you think fit this description, and why?
4) In some countries and regions of the world, history seems to have a strong hold on the way people think – for example, in Ireland, Israel/Palestine, and the countries of the former Yugoslavia. Americans, particularly, often find this preoccupation with the past rather difficult to understand. For them it is the present and the future that matter. Why is there this difference, do you think?
5) “Like so many randomly drawn boundaries, it *the border drawn after the Partition of Ireland+ was a quick solution that was bound to lead to trouble.” Can you think of any other such borders? What long-term consequences have they had?
6) When trying to resolve conflicts, whether between individuals or peoples, there are two opposite ways to proceed: on the one hand, to “let bygones be bygones”, i.e. to look to the future and forget the past: on the other, to look back and try, borrowing the Queen’s expression, to painstakingly loosen the knot of history. Which method do you think is most likely to succeed? Can you find any examples to illustrate your view?
Quick research tasks
1) The text (written in June 2011) refers to the resurgence of republican terrorism, carried out by groups like the Real IRA and Continuity IRA. What developments have there been on this front since the article was written?
2) What position does the Irish language have in the Republic of Ireland today? Look particularly at its role in public administration, education and daily life.
3) As a part of the agreements that were reached in 1998, a Northern Ireland Assembly was set up with a cross-community power-sharing executive. What is the current situation as regards representation in the Assembly and the executive?