I have a confession to make. I was invited to Thursday’s big event in Dublin’s National Convention Centre, at which the visiting British Queen was treated to some Irish music and dance and met a few thousand people. And I must also confess that I came over specially from Scotland in order to attend. And, dare I say this, I am very glad I did so.
As some have observed, those commenting on this state visit by Elizabeth II have made good use of the dictionary of clichés. It’s been all about the ‘maturing’ of Ireland as a self-confident nation, about overcoming history, about looking to the future, about Irish hospitality (and indeed Irish wit), about being present at a turning point in history. But then again, sometimes the clichés are right.
I am, as some readers here will know, not a monarchist. I believe in the compelling political narrative of a republic. And yet, this week I was also just a little bit carried away in the symbolic power of the carefully constructed political statements presented as simple actions (and occasionally as words). It was an extraordinarily well planned and executed visit, with perhaps only the decision to keep the Dublin crowds at bay now turning out to have been a mistake – but one for which Cork atoned. The Queen conducted herself with skill and poise, and there developed between her and the country an easy rapport the idea of which would have seemed ludicrous just a couple of years ago. It was summed up rather well by a person who tweeted: ‘I’ve just seen the Queen drive past. She waved at me. I’ve got kind of used to having her around.’ The very small number of protesters just seemed bizarre in their actions, and were quickly ignored. By the time the tour was nearing the end even Sinn Féin had climbed on to the royal visit bandwagon.
Sometimes political change is born out of sentimental iconic moments, and this was one such occasion. The bowed head in the Garden of Remembrance, the cúpla focal (couple of words in Irish), the visit to Croke Park – all moments of high symbolism skillfully played out. As some commentators have observed, over the four days the Irish seemed to develop something very like real affection for the British monarch, and she appeared to reciprocate. As is the national character, it was expressed in sometimes irreverent ways, but that seemed to make it all more real, and as far as one can tell Elizabeth genuinely enjoyed it all. As I met her yesterday, some of those with me offered her good-natured quips, and she took it all in evident good humour.
We shouldn’t over-state the significance of all this; but then again, we should recognise that there was something important happening in Ireland this week. Something good.