The Queen of England's visit is raising a number of issues: issues, it seems, we may need to reflect on. One of them seems to be: what does it mean to be Irish? If we look at the events of the last couple of days we see two different aspects of Irish life and history being acknowledged - the Celtic nationalist/republican one and the one which emerged in the years of our occupation by Britain. Both aspects are being dealt with a view to recognising the positive dimensions of each and perhaps asking us to consider that being Irish is not exclusiving adhering to one or the other, but to both.
Yesterday, the Queen honoured Irish nationalists, today she honoured the Irishmen and women who gave their lives in the World Wars, many of whom fought in the British army. It has brought me to think about my own family. My great-grandfather on my mother's side fought in the First World War in the British Army, thankfully he survived. My grandfather on my father's side fought for Irish freedom in the War of Independence. He was involved in the struggle against the Treaty and saw the inside of a prison cell and was excommunicated by the local bishop for his stance. He was eventually freed, and the excommunication was lifted without any need for a sign of repentance - it was politically motivated I think, so Rome would not have upheld it.
While the Ireland of the 20th century acknowledged one identity, it did not recognise the other - those who fought in the Wars were ignored at best and treated as traitors at worst. Yet most of the Irish who joined the British army saw themselves as fighting for Ireland. The threat they saw in Europe was one which would, if not defeated, turn itself to our little country, and so they wanted to do their part in stopping it. That is true.
Our neutrality during World War II, for example, would not have saved us (it didn't save Sweden). If Britain had fallen we would have had the Nazis landing on our shores the next day. Our Jewish citizens, who have made vital contributions to the life of our state, would have been shipped off to the gas chambers (Nazi documents show they knew how many Jewish Irishmen and women there were). If we thought the British were oppressive colonisers, they would have seemed like a laugh a minute in comparison with Hitler and co. Personally, the more I reflect on the Second World War, I think Ireland should not have been neutral, but rather fighting with the Allies; as a small country we might not have been able to do much, but we would have taken a stand against the evil of the Nazi regime.
The question which may need to be asked now is: is it not time to remedy this? Is it not time to look at our Irish identity and finally acknowledge that being Irish is not just being Celtic (whatever that means), Irish-speaker and Catholic (nominal rather than actual)? In recent years we have rethought Irishness by including the new Irish - emigrants who are integrating into Irish life and call themselves Irish, many taking citizenship. Thankfully, with some small hiccups, that process is happening successfully. But what about those who acknowledge a relationship with Britain and with the Crown? Here we come to the whole issue of Northern Ireland and the Unionist/Loyalist tradition. With relations improving there, we may need to see adjustments down here.
These are just thoughts prompted by the visit of the Queen. Are we starting a new era when Ireland and the UK will finally be good neighbours and friends, sharing resources, events,and perhaps, in some way, an identity? We in Ireland should have nothing to fear, this visit has shown that we have taken our place among the nations of the world (even if the world is bailing us out of our economic woes - note: Britain was the first to offer financial assistance). Personally I believe there should be a vibrant relationship. At various events and celebrations, for example, invitations should be issued to each other - friends including friends in important moments. The Queen should not be a rare visitor to Ireland, nor the President to the UK, but frequent visitors, not surrounded by draconian security, but made welcome as friends and neighbours. A relationship like that would yield many blessings and much fruit in the North of Ireland, and indeed here in the Republic.
Time to learn from the past, but not allow it haunt our future. After all, if I may bring religion into the issue - we are all Christians - we are two Christian nations - is it not time to act like Christians?
I am conscious that my non-Irish readers may not be aware of the background: Ireland's struggle for independence and grievances. William Oddie of the Catholic Herald has a good article here. He talks about the last few years of British occupation, but the seven hundred years before also presented problems for Anglo-Irish relations. Alot of ghosts over a long period of time are being exorcised this week.
The Queen's speech was excellent. She opened speaking in Irish, "A hUachtarain agus a chairde" (trans. President and friends). She then expressed sympathy and, it seems to me, regret for the events of history:
"It is a sad and regrettable reality that through history our islands have experienced more than their fair share of heartache, turbulence and loss. These events have touched us all, many of us personally, and are a painful legacy. We can never forget those who have died or been injured or their families. To all those who have suffered as a consequence of our troubled past I extend my sincere thoughts and deep sympathy. With the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all."