Apologising to the queen

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Editorial, General, Issue 3 (May/June 2011), Volume 19

In a magnanimous gesture to our nearest neighbours, having recently inflicted morale-sapping defeats in both rugby and cricket (once regarded as ‘foreign games’ in some quarters), the Irish government has invited Queen Elizabeth II to our shores. No doubt this will revive the old Gay Byrne joke of the 1980s, that if the queen of England was ever to visit (a remote possibility back then, with war still raging in the North) we should hand the country back to her and apologise for the state of it! Now that she’s actually coming it’s too late—it has already been handed over to the IMF and the ECB!While the arguments for and against the visit are many and varied, they fall into two general categories. Proponents, by and large, argue on the basis of ‘common courtesy’ and ‘traditions of Irish hospitality’ (almost exactly the same arguments used by supporters of Edward VII’s visit in 1903, see pp 38–40). There is also an element of ‘celeb culture’ in all of this, although if the visits (in 1879 and 1880) of a previous royal Elizabeth (‘Sisi’, empress of Austria-Hungary, see pp 30–3), not to mention the impact in Ireland of the first televised British coronation in 1953 (see pp 46–7), are anything to go by, this is not a new phenomenon. This seems to me to be a fairly weak argument, certainly in contrast to the more robust concepts of sovereignty and democracy cited by opponents.By definition a monarch cannot be elected, but in any case that is trumped by the international principle (enshrined in the UN Charter) of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states/nations (a principle, sadly, more honoured in the breach, as our own history demonstrates). In other words, it is a matter for the British people to decide who or what their head of state should be. Then there is the historical baggage of the Act of Settlement, barring Catholics from the UK throne, but that too is an anachronism for Britain’s post-Christian, multi-ethnic society to resolve.Arguments against the visit on the basis of sovereignty are on more solid ground: both states claim jurisdiction over the six north-eastern counties, conflicting claims that were at the heart of the recent conflict in Northern Ireland. But that conflict was resolved after nearly 30 years of violence, not with victory for one side or the other but with a compromise, painfully negotiated over many years and overwhelmingly endorsed by the Irish people, North and South. That now represents the sovereign will of the Irish people.So let us welcome our neighbouring head of state, not obsequiously but as a sovereign people mindful of our past and, in spite of our current difficulties, confident for our future.


Tommy Graham

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