Historic visit mends official differences, but ordinary UK folk never thought of the Irish as foreign, writes Allan Massie
There are doubtless some nationalists among us who will look on the state visit of the president of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, and murmur “how long before Scotland receives the same recognition as an independent country?” Only, of course, it won’t happen, not at least till the SNP changes its tune. If we choose independence on 18 September, it is still intended that the Queen should remain our head of state. This being so, she wouldn’t be making a state visit to herself. Constitutionally, Ireland (or the Republic) is a foreign country as the likes of Australia, New Zealand and Canada aren’t, since the Queen is their head of state too, and as an independent Scotland wouldn’t be, unless republicans – not entirely absent from the SNP – have their way.
Yet, though the Republic of Ireland is a foreign country – if also like the United Kingdom a member of the European Union – few of us probably think of it as being really foreign. Its history is so closely, if sometimes unhappily, intertwined with ours, that we regard it as family, a sometimes estranged member of the family perhaps, nevertheless family. The island of Ireland may be partitioned, with six counties of the historic province of Ulster remaining part of the United Kingdom.
Yet there are some areas of Irish life where partition has been ignored. The Ireland rugby team has always been drawn from all-Ireland and some of its greatest players, such as Dr Jack Kyle, Michael Gibson and Willie-John McBride, have been subjects of the Queen, but heroes in Dublin as well as in Belfast. Moreover, if they chose they could all have Irish passports, for the constitution of the Republic has never acknowledged the partition of the island. Indeed it declares that the name of the state is Ireland (or Éire in Irish Gaelic), not the Republic of Ireland, which is made up of 26 counties.
It was partition, rather than the bloody and painful conflict that ended with the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922, which until recently made state visits impossible. Though there was some resentment here of Irish neutrality in the Second World War, it was Dublin which insisted on holding London at a distance. From the Irish point of view this was necessary as long as Northern Ireland remained in the United Kingdom. It is only since the official end of the Troubles in the North, following the Good Friday Agreement, that what may be regarded as normal inter-state relations have become fully possible.
Even so. When the Queen accepted the invitation to make a state visit to Ireland three years ago, Sinn Fein boycotted the proceedings and declined invitations to official receptions. This makes it all the more remarkable that Martin McGuinness, the Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, was a guest at last night’s state banquet at Windsor Castle, having been granted permission by his party to attend. How things have changed, and are both officially and unofficially seen to have changed.
It is of course the case that though the Troubles have officially ended and the devolved government of Northern Ireland is based on the principle of power-sharing between the Unionist and Nationalist (or Republican) parties, trouble still simmers, violence has not ended, crimes have gone unpunished and cases are not brought to court. Most recognise that some degree of amnesia has been necessary if some sort of peace were to be established. Many, especially the families and friends of victims on either side of the conflict, resent this tacit willingness to bury the past. But it is difficult to see how things might have been managed otherwise. The president’s visit will be a success, just as the Queen’s to Ireland was. There is general goodwill and a desire for normal relations between the United Kingdom and Ireland.
The remarkable thing however is that, despite the official distance that was maintained for so long, relationships in ordinary non-official life between British and Irish people have almost always been good. Even when the IRA were exploding bombs and murdering people in England, there was almost nothing in the way of an anti-Irish backlash. It is indeed a very long time since there was any anti-Irish feeling in either England or Scotland. Irish people have come and gone freely, finding work here, voting in elections here, not being regarded as foreigners.
Admittedly, back in the 1920s, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland approved a report drawing attention to the menace of Irish immigration to Scottish nationality, but this was a very long time ago, and in any case it was the immigrants’ religion – Catholicism – that disturbed the Kirk, rather than their nationality. Irish Protestants were always made welcome.
What can we learn from the Irish experience, or rather from the experience of relations between Britain and Ireland? The first lesson is surely encouraging. Alex Salmond has insisted that, if we vote for independence, the “social union” between Scotland and the other parts of the UK would not be broken. The Irish experience suggests that he is right. We don’t think of the Irish as foreigners, and, if we opt for independence, it is unlikely that people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland would start thinking of us as alien beings. There would still be easy coming and going across the Border. Scots would still find work in England and English people would still do so here. The links between families and friends would not be severed.
Nevertheless there is another lesson, and a less agreeable one. Secession is neither easy nor comfortable. Negotiations between Edinburgh and London would be difficult. Neither side would get everything it wants. At official level there might be a coolness and resentment. Relations between the two new states that would come into being might well be poor, awkward and difficult for a long time, certainly less comfortable and easy than personal relations between the citizens of the new states.
It has taken the best part of a century for normal relations to be established between the United Kingdom and Ireland. It probably wouldn’t take so long if Scotland chooses independence, but nobody should think that inter-state relations would all be sweetness and light. Both sides in negotiations would have had, reluctantly, to make concessions, and both would have found reason for dissatisfaction with the outcome.