Sunday, May 22, 2011

Royal visit - I got it wrong

I retract my statement about the absence of interest in the queen’s visit. 

Queen Elizabeth lays a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance honouring those who fought against the British crown
It’s been huge news in Ireland. Today’s Irish Examiner leader says “It has probably been the most memorable and successful visit of any head of state since the visit of US President John F Kennedy in 1963” and I've spoken to people who strongly share that positive view. And moreover (to their own surprise) found themselves quite moved by it.

The Queen and President at Islandbridge where world war dead are buried
Principal comments I have heard are
  • We’re so relieved she’s got back without a terrorist incident – it would have been the end of us if that had happened.  For many people this is the number one comment. 
  • Pride in Ireland. We did it well.  Especial praise for President Mary McAleese. Her grace and dignity, her speech at Dublin Castle, and in particular her remarks on her pride in Irish nationalism, and that we meet the Queen as an equal (yes for some that does still need mentioning).
  • The well-judged symmetry of the two wreath-laying ceremonies, one to honour those who fought Britain for Irish freedom, the other to honour those who had fought for Britain in two world wars (more on this theme below).
  • The Queen bowed her head at the Garden of Remembrance. This is the shrine to those who have died fighting against the British for Irish freedom.
  • She said that with the benefit of historical hindsight we can all think of things that should have been done differently or not at all.  This was at the state dinner at Dublin Castle on the 2nd day of the visit. (See video below.)
  • She smiled a lot. The walkabout in Cork just before she went home was hugely appreciated, especially here in Cork.
  • It was right that the GAA welcomed her at Croke Park; and the GAA President was right to refer to Bloody Sunday (more on this below).
  • Frequent comments that Mary McAleese should be allowed to serve a third term (not allowed, to the regret of many, under the constitution).
    A few more words on a couple of themes that have been prominent in the media these past few days. Firstly, the symmetry of the two wreath-laying ceremonies. The first of these was at the Garden of Remembrance (honouring those who have died fighting against the British) and the second was at Islandbridge, which is where the Irish fallen from two world wars are laid to rest.  It has been repeatedly commented that until recently the Irish dead from the First World War have been passed over in embarrassed silence. A bit like Vietnam veterans in America.  Fighting for the imperialist oppressor. Mary McAleese is credited with putting an end to this shameful amnesia and neglect. (This is a big subject which deserves as essay in itself.  RTÉ radio did an excellent series in 2008 called Our War, and you can listen to two episodes that touch on the amnesia theme here.
    Shameful amnesia and neglect is a tendentious term of course, and dedicated republicans might dispute it.   

    Next,  about Croke Park, the national stadium of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA). On 21st November 1920 at a Dublin-Tipperary football match, 14 people lost their lives when British forces entered the stadium and started shooting. Included in the dead were Michael Hogan, a player on the Tipperary team. The Hogan Stand is named in his honour. Also Thomas Ryan, shot on his knees whispering an act of contrition to Hogan. Full story on the GAA website.

    In a dignified speech to welcome the Queen, the President of the GAA Christy Cooney referred to this event. The consensus is that the GAA was right to welcome her and that Christy Cooney was right to refer to Bloody Sunday. He didn't, in point of fact, name it. He referred to it oblquely, with the phrase "including those that died in this place".

    However those who oppose the Queen’s visit find it particularly obnoxious that she should have been welcomed at Croke Park.

    Forelock-tugging is another accusation that has been levelled in connection with the visit in general, for example a reader’s letter in yesterday's Examiner from Dominic Carroll, Ardfield, Co Cork. He derided “the forelock-tugging shoneens who this week bent the knee to Mrs Windsor of London” and especially the academic staff of Trinity College Dublin who “lined up like schoolchildren as they awaited a few words of condescension from the royal personage; it was stomach-turning” he says. 

    There will be more letters like this in the next few days but in my neck of the woods my sense is that they are in a small minority of opinion. You may ask if the opinions I hear are taylored out of politeness to my English ears. I don’t think so.

    Here are the videos and full text of the speeches at Dublin Castle on the Wednesday 18th.

    Full text of President Mary McAleese's speech
    Full text of speech by Queen Elizabeth II

    The Queen video. Watch the first 3 minutes in particular. “Differently or not at all” comes at 2:24.

    President Mary McAllese video.  Reflects on difficult centuries, 4:25. Deeply proud, 5:40


    1. As an English person who has never seen the point of the Queen I must admit I was quite moved by the reception she got in Ireland, and for the first time in my life I valued something she did. Putting aside the constitutional debate temporarily it was very emotive to see the British Head of State getting such a positive welcome in a country which should be our best friend but for valid historical reasons isn't. And to be fair to her she seems to have not put a foot wrong, striking the right note in her speeches and making bold statements with her actions. I'd still rather it had been our President visiting but......

      What was your own view of the visit Pete?

    2. I would express a view similar to yours Noggin but I would mumble it under my breath. Countries are the bane of history. Were I world emperor I would abolish them and establish a worldwide confederation of city regions, with an ideal population size of 8 million and a top population of 20 million. No countries! No queens. Not even presidents! Just mayors.

    3. Tendentious, now there's a word I learnt a couple of years ago but soon forgot. But I'm glad you've reminded me of it, as it is most useful.

      Noggin's point about monarchy vs president is also something I concur with, but I've been surprised by the number of people I know who I thought would be nailed on British Republicans yet say things like "what would you replace the monarchy with? Having a head of state without power is a good thing" and "The royal family bring in a lot of tourist money". I don't really have an answer to those arguments, what do you 2 say?

      It's an interesting thought that it isn't the head of state that's the problem, but the state itself. A bit fanciful, or fantastical, though.

    4. It’s not the case that the British monarch has no power. But you're right that there are two types of head of state, basically executive (USA, France, Russia) and non-executive (Ireland, UK, Sweden). For example, in Ireland the president’s term is 7 years, max two terms, and next election is coming up soon. As well as representing the country on state occasions the president has the responsibility of deciding whether, on the face of it, legislation that comes forward from the Irish parliament is constitutional. If the president thinks it may not be, it is their responsibility to convene a council of state which may refer the legislation in question to the supreme court for a definitive ruling. The British monarch doesn’t have that particular power, but has many more sweeping powers.

      As to tourism: ouch! I hear a barrel being scraped. Anyone who can't think of a better reason that that has lost the argument already. Actually I suspect that the European royal family that attracts most tourists is the French one. Versailles, the Louvre and all that. And they had their blocks knocked off 230 years ago!

    5. "Imagine there's no countries"!! Sounds fantastic to me, although I'd watch out for Rome. Or the Athenians. Or the Spartans. I'd vote for you anyway Pete!

      I agree Alb, it's surprising and depressing how many rational people seem to support the Monarchy. Don't think it will be changed in our lifetime.

      I also agree with Pete, that's the weakest argument there is, even if it could be proved that there's a net income to the UK from the royals (although accounting-wise you can prove anything you want to really). I've been trying to explain the system to Jude, and the absurdity of it just can't be got around "So people are sleeping under bridges while they've got lots of spare houses?" A five-year-old's view may be simplistic but it's on the button. He's starting to grasp that the kings and queens aren't the goodies after all....