Tuesday, 10 May 2011

The Visit of a British Queen to Ireland

The forthcoming visit of Queen Elizabeth II of England (first of Scotland) to Éire-Ireland has raised some eyebrows, stirred a certain amount of controversy, but has mostly elicited a air of studied indifference combined with an appropriate measure of bemusement. That this should be the case is hardly surprising. In fact it is only to be expected given the historical background to the visit.

No sooner was the visit announced (at the invitation of Ireland's President Mary II) when the public relations coup some hoped they had achieved was deflated; US president Barack Obama also announced his intention visit to Ireland around the same time. It can only be speculated as to the intentions of the twin dignitaries and the countries they represent; whether the matter might be a case of collusion, contention or purely co-incidental.

Shortly after the announcement a controversy indeed arose, reflecting the wider issues of still unresolved differences between the Irish and British realms. A Dublin publican was ordered to take down a banner he erected outside his premises informing Queen Elizabeth that:
She and all her family are barred from this pub. As long as the British occupy one inch of this island they will never be welcome in Ireland.

According to further reports by the Irish Independent and other sources, the said publican was later arrested in a raid by An Gardaí Síochána on his premises. The publican who initiated the action, Mr John Stokes is vehement that:
I don't support any human life being taken - in Iraq, Afghanistan, wherever. I remember watching the Vietnam War on the television as a child and being really upset.

He is also reported as saying that:
This is nothing against English people. We’ve a lot of English people in the pub, we show English football, and we’re quite happy to do that…I do feel it’s not the right time for the queen to visit this country and I feel I have a democratic right to express that view. She still occupies part of our country and as long as she does I will always object to her presence in this country.

On the other side of the coin some ludicrously fawning banners of Queen Elizabeth and President Obama were ordered to be removed from a hotel located in Dublin's city centre. It is understood that the fifty foot high banners were removed following similar objections to those raised against Mr Stokes. It is known that the venue responsible for erecting these banners belong to property developer Harry Crosbie, whose investments are among those included in the NAMA winelake. It seems reasonable to assume that the Irish taxpayers, who are funding this bailout, are unlikely to ever be honoured in such a fashion.

Outside of the royalist-republican battleground, Socialist Pary TD, Joe Higgins managed to raise some hackles when he suggested to the Dáil that Queen Elizabeth "might make a contribution towards her own bed and breakfast" during her state visit, his reasoning being that:
the Royal Family of Britain is one of the wealthiest families in the world and this country is almost sleeping rough, so to speak, figuratively - Press Association
He went on to suggest that the visit by US president was a bid to win support from Irish Americans when he goes for re-election next year.
Isn't it a bit rich really that the Irish taxpayer, as well as bailing out European speculators, must now make a contribution to the re-election campaign of the United States' president? - ibid

But leaving aside the comedic aspects what are the wider ramification of Queen Elizabeth's (and to a certain extent President Obama's) visit? There is no doubt that the British monarch commands a certain amount of respect among the wider public - in Britain and in Ireland. She is after all a person despite what her lackeys might contend. What kind of person commands such varied measures of respect, revulsion and studied indifference? In the words of Oscar Wilde the only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about.
To answer this question we have to go back into the history of the British monarchy itself. Thankfully though, we do not have to go back too far. Actually it all goes back to 1936. That was the year of the abdication of Edward VIII. It also represents the year when the British monarchy ceased to have any significant role in affairs of state where independent Ireland was concerned.
Edward VIII's abdication was a matter forced upon him, not as some choose to believe, so that he could 'be with the woman he loved', but because of his sympathy and support for Nazi Germany. The issue of the Edward's proposed marriage however became the public battleground. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin reportedly told his cabinet that he had been asked by a Labour MP: 'Are we going to have a fascist monarchy?' [see Wikipedia].
Edward's attempts to achieve reconciliation with his government were rebuffed. In any case, it wasn't simply a matter for the British government or the British people alone. According to Wikipedia:
the Statute of Westminster 1931, which provided in part that "any alteration in the law touching the Succession to the Throne or the Royal Style and Titles shall hereafter require the assent as well of the Parliaments of all the Dominions as of the Parliament of the United Kingdom." The Prime Ministers of Australia, Canada and South Africa made clear their opposition to the King marrying a divorcee; the Irish prime minister expressed indifference and detachment, while the Prime Minister of New Zealand, having never even heard of Mrs. Simpson before, vacillated in disbelief. Faced with this opposition, Edward at first responded that there were "not many people in Australia" and their opinion did not matter.

A policy of conscious indifference therefore became the prevailing official Irish attitude towards the British monarchy from that point on. Ireland of course used the abdication crisis to repeal certain aspects of the Ango-Irish Treaty of 1922. Ireland became a republic in all but name; and a new constitution was enacted the following year which removed "all mention of the King and of the Representative of the Crown, whether under that title or under the title of Governor General." - see Cathal Brennan The Abdication of Edward VIII and Irish Independence.

After his abdication Edward and his wife (now the Duke and Duchess of Windsor) visited Nazi Germany where they were hosted by high ranking members of the regime, including Adolph Hitler. He became something of a thorn in the side of the British establishment (including his own family), even before war broke out with Germany in 1939.

While the pro-Nazi sentiment within the British political system was for the most part contained during WWII, it has recently been revealed that the outcome of that war and the defeat of Nazi Germany did not altogether eliminate it. From the Irish Independent, 22/11/2009:
BRITAIN'S Duke of Windsor plotted to return from exile in France and regain power as the health of King George VI deteriorated, according to letters discovered in America. ... He may even have hoped to one day reclaim the throne, according to the letters. ... The plotting reached its height in 1949. Some courtiers feared that George VI would become too ill to rule and that the young Princess Elizabeth - then just 23 - would effectively rule under the influence of Earl Mountbatten and Prince Philip of Greece, whom the future queen had married in 1947.

The 'young Princess Elizabeth' is of course today's Queen Elizabeth and from this it can be seen that her accession to the English throne was at least important in terms of closing the door on a certain unsavoury aspect of recent history.

The British monarchy was in fact one of the many battlegrounds of WWII. Insofar as these matters are ever black-and-white, the good guys won this particular battle - sort of. The monarchy was captured by the anti-fascist side and kept on a tight leash. Those who occupied the throne were allowed to remain there so long as they towed the anti-fascist line. After the war - in the absence of a party committed to modernising or restructuring the British state along democratic republican lines - the existence of an anti-fascist monarchy was the next best (or least worst) thing.

Of course it would be easy for us, as Irish people, to chide our British cousins for their naivety and sentimentality. But it deserves to be recognised that, in the context of the time, Irish people too were only beginning to grapple with political theory. Again, from Wikipedia:
Thomas Jones, Prime Minister Lloyd George's deputy cabinet secretary recalls an exchange on 14 July 1921 between the President of Dáil Éireann, de Valera and Prime Minister Lloyd George concerning the name of the Irish Republic in Irish:

"...Mr. de Valera...handed Mr. Lloyd George a document in Irish, and then a translation in English. The Irish document was headed 'Saorstat Eireann' and Mr. Lloyd George began by asking modestly for a literal translation, saying that 'Saorstat' did not strike his ear as Irish. Mr. De Valera replied 'Free State'. 'Yes, retorted Mr. Lloyd George, 'but what is the Irish word for Republic'. While Mr. De Valera and his colleague were pondering in English on what reply they should make Mr. Lloyd George conversed aloud in Welsh with one of his Secretaries (T.J.) to the discomfiture of the two Irishmen and as Mr. De Valera could get no further than Saorstat and Free State Mr. Lloyd George remarked 'Must we not admit that the Celts were never Republicans and have no native word for such an idea"

It appears that no one on the Irish side was familiar with the views of one Friedrich Engels (himself an avid observer of Irish affairs), who as far back as 1875 gave his opiniion on the subject of a 'free state':
Grammatically speaking, a free state is one in which the state is free vis-à-vis its citizens, a state, that is, with a despotic government. - Letter to August Bebel In Zwickau, March 18-28, 1875

Of course republicanism in its Irish context has never been resolved into a question of what form the head of state, or even the state itself should take. It is rather a question of the principles underlying a system of governance.

Wolfe Tone's goal was to 'break the connection with England' by uniting all Irish people - Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter. Later Irish republicans (who included socialists in their ranks) developed these ideas further in the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic. This declares:
  • the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible.
  • includes a guarantee of full adult suffrage (a feat few other countries had achieved at the time).
  • resolves to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.

But what is the relevance of all this for the present time, when Ireland, Britain and the world are experiencing far-reaching and fundamental changes? A couple of points stand out.

Clearly the aspirations of today's generations of Irish people are different to those that were around in 1916. For some, the forced acceptance by the Irish government of the ECB/IMF dictated bailout has brought closure to this period of nation-building. At the same time there are those who will argue, that the Irish Independence project rolled out in 1916 was flawed only in terms of its execution, not in terms of its overall design. Then as know, the challenge for Irish people is to wrest ourselves free from foreign domination. The economist Morgan Kelly has recently outlined what he believes Ireland's prospects are under the terms of this bailout, and has come to the conclusion that Ireland's future depends on breaking free from bailout.

The current situation is a lot like it was in 1916 where Britain is concerned too. Then, as now that state is locked in a battle for geo-political domination of the world. The fact that it is but a shadow of its previous self doesn't appear to deter those who are involving their country in invasions, occupations and barbaric attacks on the peoples of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya. The last two administrations in Britain (which have involved all the major political parties - Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat) have proved culpable in this regard.

A call has been made from certain quarters for an anti-war government in Britain. This is commendable but it also has to be said those who would participate in this form of international gangsterism are unlikely to depart the stage of history peaceably. Far from diminishing, all the signs are that these attacks are going to continue, grow more savage and indiscriminate, as 'enemies' are singled out to be ticked off against a real or imaginary list.

Those who would hope for some kind of transformation in the political life of the British state, will no doubt be disappointed by the recent referendum result rejecting the proposed new voting system. Equally though, it could be argued, that the case for political change goes much deeper than mere cosmetic changes - replacing the monarchy with a republic being one such example.

At the end of the day, a country that wages war of aggression is still in contempt of international law whether that country is governed by a system of hereditary privilege or a system of elected dictators. British republicans (if such a party exists) would to well to learn from the Irish experience: It's not the form that matters but the principles underlying the system of governance and how a country conducts itself internationally which counts.

No doubt change will come. It can only be hoped that when it does come it is not already too late.

Copyright © Oscar Ó Dúgáin, 2011

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