The Irish Answer

22 September 2022

The Irish Answer?

by Paul Branch

The funeral to end all funerals has come and gone.  There’s been goodwill poured our way by countries across the globe for our politicians to make the most of, but it hasn’t all been sweetness, light and forgiveness. For some ex-colonies it seemed to rekindle anger that there has been no apology, compensation or atonement for historical British ill treatment.  As Her Majesty’s coffin sank majestically and solemnly through the floor of Windsor’s chapel, the message received was one of no change in attitude, driven by continuing British monarchical succession:  Charles, his son and grandson all lined up to keep those emotional embers alight far into the future.  As an aside, not everyone gets a preview of the pageantry which will accompany their own demise, but let’s hope the sad irony was lost on young George.

And what of the country most recently on the receiving end of perceived colonial injustice, the country most affected by the imposition of trade barriers and by the threatened breakdown of the Northern Ireland protocol, and the country nearest and dearest to us, most saddened by the personal turbulence resulting from Brexit?   In Ireland of all places there has been a demonstration of warmth and sympathy for the Queen’s passing and a show of great willingness to repair and protect Anglo-Irish relations.  Thankfully there have also been heartening reciprocal gestures on our part.  On his pre-funeral visit to Belfast’s Anglican cathedral, at the conclusion of the ceremony King Charles headed straight for the Irish President, Michael D Higgins, for a convivial clasping of hands.  Close by and seated together were Liz Truss and the Irish prime minister, Taoiseach Michael Martin, deep in discussion before and after the service.  Behind them were the two Northern Ireland politicians most capable of resolving the constitutional impasse in Stormont, Sinn Fein vice-president Michelle O’Neill and DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson.  And nearby were the new Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris and the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney.  It was almost as if the seating planner for the occasion was anxious to get a few conversations going, and maybe the plan worked.   This was the first time Truss and Martin had met, and they were due to speak again in substantive terms following the funeral, hopefully as a precursor to meaningful negotiations with the EU on the post-Brexit protocol without all the unnecessary mud-slinging.

The annual pilgrimage to County Cork last week to visit marital relatives and graves meant an unintended clash with the royal funeral.  National coverage in the Irish Times and Irish Independent of the lying in state and build-up to the funeral was as impressive as it was unexpected. The funeral itself was covered live on mainstream TV in all its grandeur and splendour, a marvel of detailed planning and execution to be sure, and no one complained about the temporary loss of other entertainment (especially as everybody more or less can get BBC and ITV as easily as their own programming).  Maybe it just seemed the right thing to do.  Luckily crucial hurling matches and other domestic sports are catered for on separate channels, so no real conflict or harm done, but all the same it did seem a tad over the top.  Not quite as OTT as the Mayor of Cork City ordering flags on city hall to be flown at half mast (the Queen did an impressive job in Cork when she visited in 2011), but that was short lived in the face of the resulting uproar.

Conversations with friends and family inevitably started with the usual preliminaries – “Has it really been three years?  My how you’ve grown!  You’re not looking a day older” – and all that goes with them – “Now so, a sandwich?” – and inevitably:  “A cup of tea ..?   or something a wee bit stronger?”   Matters majestic soon took over, and considerations on the old Queen and the new King dominated.  Everyone seems to know them almost personally, plus of course the more infamous members of the Royal family.  Andrew and Harry are given short but colourful shrift, Meghan is tolerated, the Diana soap opera of blessed memory is evoked on occasion but Camilla surprisingly gets a good press.  Google is consulted frequently to check on essential dates and facts (the Queen Mother’s age and favourite tipple are right up there).  And then someone mentions Michael Collins.

For those a bit rusty on General Michael Collins, he was Finance Minister and head of the Irish army, and the chief representative of the self-proclaimed Irish republic sent to negotiate and sign a peace and secession treaty with the British Government in 1921.  Collins was a 32 year-old intelligent, colourful and immensely popular character who had helped steer the birth of the Irish republic through the 1916 uprising and subsequent conflicts with the British army.  He and his fellow negotiators were up against the experienced British team which included David Lloyd George, Lord Birkenhead and Winston Churchill.   The resulting partition of Northern Ireland provoked civil war in Ireland, between Fianna Fail in opposition to the treaty which did not provide a totally united and intact Ireland of 32 counties, and Fianna Gael which saw the 26 counties defined in the treaty agreed by Collins as less than optimum but at least a stepping stone to an eventual united island.   Collins was ambushed and killed in August 1922 during that civil war, not by the British but by his own countrymen.

Despite the civil war and passionate feelings on both sides, for and against the treaty he signed, Collins is still widely admired and respected for having initially led the struggle for Irish independence.  So it’s no great surprise that his centenary coinciding with the death of a British monarch should evoke strong feelings about the situation in Northern Ireland which many still regard as unfinished business.   Although Fianna Fail and Fianna Gael have moved on politically from pure focus on the treaty, this issue is especially relevant to supporters of Sinn Fein which centres on a united Ireland.  Sinn Fein is now the largest single political party in Ireland, kept out of power by a coalition between the other two main parties, and in Northern Ireland where the DUP’s preoccupation with Brexit has kept its government in Stormont on hold.

There’s considerable respect in Ireland for Queen Elizabeth the person, as opposed to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II with all the associated history, and maybe enough to provide the stepping stone Michael Collins was looking for, if we on our part can adopt a similar level of respect in return.  Not necessarily stepping directly to a united Ireland, as attractive as that might sound.  Many in the republic don’t really care for the economic liability it would bring, nor for the violent rancour that would probably ensue from disappointed unionists in the north.  But at least a path to a more moderate, reasoned and indeed educated discussion than those we’ve endured of late.  There seems to have always been an “Irish Question”, to which many solutions have been tried.  Maybe the time is now right for an “Irish Answer” in the form of a simple invitation from the Taoiseach:  Come on over for a cup of tea Liz, and we’ll see what we can do together.                             

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