Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme, Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole said that the Queen’s visit to Ireland was not so much a change in itself but instead underlined a change that has already happened. He was right. The relationship between Britain and Ireland has been transformed in recent decades.
The mutual suspicion that characterised relations between the two countries has gone. Instead there is now a much more normal relationship between two neighbouring states. Rivalry on the sporting field will always remain but at the level of security, economics and international relations things are warmer than they have ever been.
Much credit for that goes to Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, two leaders from a new generation unencumbered by the historical positions of their countries and parties. These leaders were prepared to approach the problem afresh and work together through all the ups and downs of the peace process to keep the show on the road, however hopeless it seemed at times. Of course, other things needed to be in place and it was not only Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern who exercised leadership. The Sinn Fein leadership had tired of the “armed struggle” and the leadership of the Unionist parties was prepared to deal with the Republican leadership. But whoever one chooses to credit most, the key thing is that the Good Friday agreement marked not only a turning point in Northern Ireland but in relationships between the two countries.
The era of the Celtic Tiger may have come to a shuddering halt but there is no doubt that economic prosperity helped thaw relations between Britain and Ireland too. And when the Irish economy did run into its most serious trouble, Britain was an ally, not a foe.
The Queen’s visit has been heavy in symbolism of change and there have been many symbols of change in Ireland recently. It is only weeks since the tragic murder of Northern Ireland Police Officer Ronan Kerr, a murder condemned in unequivocal terms by Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness. Today the Queen laid a wreath in Ireland’s Garden of Remembrance which is dedicated to all those who died fighting British rule. The Irish Army band marked the occasion by playing “God Save the Queen”.
Not everyone approves. There have been protests. And there is a security threat serious enough to provoke an enormous effort on the part of the police and army throughout the visit. And yet the overriding impression is of how much has changed and how impossible this would have been twenty or thirty years ago.
Are there any lessons here for other parts of the world where countries live side by side in suspicion? The Middle East? Pakistan and India? It would be glib to read across too much but the following three things do some good in these situations:
1) Leaders prepared to put the past behind them;
2) Economic prosperity which can make nationalist struggles seem less defining;
3) And time. Time does help to heal.
Posted on 18 May 2011.