Finian O'Toole: Ireland and Britain: Ends and Beginnings

Finian O'Toole is a columnist for the Irish Times.

In Ireland, the phrase “guests of the nation” has a bitterly ironic flavour. It comes from the title of Frank O’Connor’s story, written in 1931 and set during the 1919-21 war of independence. The story begins with ordinary human friendship - Englishmen and Irishmen calling each other “chum”.

We gradually learn that the Englishmen are captured soldiers - hostages being held by the IRA, to be killed in reprisal for British executions of IRA prisoners. When told that they are indeed to be taken out and shot, one of the soldiers, Hawkins, gives a cry of despairing incomprehension: “Why did any of us want to plug him? What had he done to us? Weren’t we all chums? Didn’t we understand him and didn’t he understand us?”

In the third week of May 2011, the phrase “guests of the nation” acquired a different meaning, free of irony and terror. Hawkins’s question - don’t we understand them and they us? - was tinged not with despair and incomprehension but with relief and hope. It seemed, finally, that the answer to the question might simply be “yes”.

O’Connor’s story suggested that, left to themselves, without the interventions of violence and power, Irish people and English people get on together rather well. It is cruel circumstance that has blighted a naturally decent relationship. Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to Ireland on 17-20 May 2011 was essentially about bringing home the reality that those circumstances have changed for good.

On the cold, rational level, the visit didn’t change anything: it reflected a change that has already happened. The British and Irish governments have been working very closely together on the Northern Ireland peace process since the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 and especially since the mid-1990s. There are effectively no policy differences on by far the most sensitive area of British-Irish relations, a state of affairs that would seem astonishing had it not become a truism.

Equally, with one shining exception, the highlights of the visit were consequences, not causes, of change. The queen and the Republic of Ireland’s president, Mary McAleese, could lay wreaths together at the Islandbridge war memorial because attitudes to the Irish dead of the first world war have long since been changed, not just by historians and politicians but by artists such as Frank McGuinness, whose groundbreaking play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme goes all the way back to 1985.

Likewise, the queen could visit Croke Park because the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) itself has been actively moving towards a more open ideal of Irish culture for well over a decade. The GAA’s moments of truth had already happened: the singing of God Save the Queen at a rugby match in Croke Park and the funeral of the murdered PSNI constable Ronan Kerr. What was remarkable about the Croke Park visit was not that some representatives of Ulster counties stayed away but that even these absences were deliberately inconspicuous. No one felt like making a fuss....

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