‘Authentic historians’

Published in Editorial, Issue 3 (May/June 2014), Volume 22

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President Michael D. Higgins’s recent state visit to the UK completed the second half of the diplomatic choreography initiated by Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to Ireland three years ago. At every level it was a triumph, symbolising the friendship and good neighbourliness of two equal and sovereign peoples, a sovereignty in Ireland’s case hard-won by generations of patriots, constitutional and revolutionary.

In the course of the visit Taoiseach Enda Kenny announced that it was the government’s intention—where appropriate—to invite members of the royal family to attend commemorations and that it would be consulting with ‘authentic historians’ on ‘the best way to do these things’. Who are these ‘authentic historians’? They don’t, it seems, include Professor Diarmaid Ferriter, a member of the government’s own Advisory Group on Centenary Commemorations, who questioned ‘the appropriateness and the wisdom of the focus being on the royal presence in Dublin in 2016’. Surely he is right.

Queen Elizabeth in due course endorsed the taoiseach’s suggestion. Interestingly, there was little media comment on the nuance and precision of her choice of words: the palace would welcome participation in commemorations leading up to the founding of the Irish Free State. Why wouldn’t it? The Irish Free State came about in the wake of a treaty grudgingly accepted by a slim majority of the Irish people under British threats of ‘immediate and terrible war’, not to mention a disastrous civil war. Historian John Regan has plausibly described this process as a ‘counter-revolution’. Of course, that settlement has since been transcended: Ireland is now a sovereign republic (splendidly represented by President Higgins on the recent visit), and its most intractable element, partition, has been addressed in the Good Friday Agreement.

But the damage has now been done: having been invited, the royals can hardly be ‘uninvited’. The government has needlessly snookered itself behind the eight ball. Professor Ferriter can hardly be blamed for pointing this out—for being, in fact, an inconveniently ‘authentic historian’.

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