Allan Massie: History unites Ireland and England

The Queen's visit to the Republic shows a desire on both sides for reconciliation after past hostilities

THE Queen is the first British monarch to visit Ireland since her grandfather George V did so exactly a hundred years ago, when what is now the Republic was part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. George was given an enthusiastic reception, but the following decade saw the British-Irish relationship reach its nadir. The Easter Rising of 1916, bloodily suppressed, and the war of liberation which followed the end of the war in Europe led to the partition of Ireland and the creation of the Irish Free State, which would become the Republic.

The invitation to the Queen was extended by the president of the Republic, Mary McAleese, and the programme for the visit shows very clearly that its purpose is to demonstrate the final reconciliation between the Republic and the United Kingdom. It may be held also to mark the full acceptance by both states of the Good Friday Agreement, which has, for the time being anyway, settled the status of Northern Ireland.

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The relationship between Britain and Ireland has always been rich in ambiguity, not least because the Irish, like the English one may add, tend to speak of "England" rather than of "the United Kingdom" or "Britain" - except when republican nationalists in the North are shouting "Brits out".

No-one better encapsulates this ambiguity than president McAleese herself, for she was born in the Ardoyne district of Belfast as a subject of the Queen. She is a lawyer with degrees from both Queen's University, Belfast, and Trinity College, Dublin, and was pro-vice chancellor of Queen's before she became the first president of the Republic to have been born in Northern Ireland. When she was elected president she said she would devote herself to "building bridges". This state visit is intended to be an important bridge.

She is known to admire the Queen, whom she first met when she was pro-vice chancellor of Queen's, and though her role allows her opportunities to express her own opinion on public affairs in a manner denied to her guest, she has to a great extent taken Queen Elizabeth as her model for how to conduct herself as head of state - something she has done with charm, dignity and good sense. This state visit is seen as the high point of her second term as president.

Yet, as the scale of the security measures being taken demonstrate, it is fraught with danger. Dissident republicans are a tiny group, both in the Republic and the North. They resent the visit, and are fiercely opposed to the Queen's presence in the Republic, because reconciliation means an acceptance of the status quo in Northern Ireland.They refuse to recognise that the status quo and power-sharing agreement there are not only generally supported in the North - whatever misgivings many may have - but also represent the only means by which a United Ireland may some day come into being with the consent of the Protestant majority in the six counties.

Even some who approve the principle of reconciliation think the Queen's visit ill-timed, and not only because the financial crash has delivered a blow to Irish self-esteem and the self-confidence which burgeoned during the years of rapid economic growth. Now the Irish have been cast back into a position of dependency on both the European Union and the United Kingdom, which has contributed to the bail-out. There is also the fear that any acts of violence or hostile demonstrations might actually set back the process of reconciliation.

These fears, however understandable, are probably exaggerated. The visit is more likely to be a resounding success, and not only because the Irish are a generous-minded people. The truth is that, though there has been much bitterness and misery in the relationship between England and Ireland, there has also been much that was fruitful.

The history of the two nations is inextricably intertwined - just as the history of England and Scotland is. James Joyce, asked by an English friend what he thought of the creation of the Free State, replied that he was himself, in his art and person, the embodiment of the connection between Ireland and England. "Ireland is what she is and therefore I am what I am because of the relations that have existed between England and Ireland," he said. "Tell me why you think I should wish to change the conditions that gave Ireland and me a shape and destiny…"

The relationship was changed, but not severed. The Irish have much to remember, much also to forgive. Yet there has also been much to celebrate - even in the ambiguity, or perhaps especially in the ambiguity that sees a woman born as the subject of the Queen welcoming the sovereign as her guest on terms of equality as one head of state greeting another.

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In Dublin, Her Majesty will not only see the pockmarks made by bullets on the Post Office in O'Connell Street during the Easter Rising, and visit the Memorial to those killed in Ireland's war of liberation, but will also attend a reception in Trinity College, founded by a charter granted by Elizabeth I of England, and a dinner in Dublin Castle, the old seat of the Ascendancy government. The various strands of Anglo-Irish history are being brought together.

That history has often been troubled. If Ireland has much to forgive, there are still English people who remember the slogan "England's danger is Ireland's opportunity". Moreover, the Royal Family has its own bitter memory: Prince Philip's uncle and mentor, Earl Mountbatten of Burma, was murdered by the Provisional IRA.

The past is not forgotten and cannot be forgotten. But reconciliation and the recognition that there is more binding Ireland to the nations that make up the United Kingdom than dividing them is the message which president McAleese's invitation conveys.

What Alex Salmond speaks of as the "social union" of Scotland and England which would survive Scottish independence already exists between the Republic of Ireland and England, the Republic and Scotland, the Republic and Wales. The First Minister of Scotland was a guest at Prince William's wedding. The Irish rugby captain Brian O'Driscoll was also invited. He couldn't attend because Leinster had a Heineken Cup match the following day, but his wife was there in Westminster Abbey, a representative as it were of this "social union" which the Queen's visit is symbolizing.