Royals and magic bullets: it’s still about the stupid economy.

As gesture politics go, I actually thought last week’s state visit seemed oddly empty.

I know we were being constantly told how to read the importance of the symbolism, yet the footage of Queen Elizabeth attending various events largely lacked the sense of a departure from history that came with the likes of Bill Clinton’s 1995 visit to Belfast.

Personally, as a benchmark, the Clinton visit had a historical feel that far outweighed the parts, which are godawful when you break them down: the absurdity of the US President turning on the Christmas tree lights in Belfast; the tweeness of Van and Brian Kennedy singing No Religion; Eric Smyth trying to gibber about Jebus; nevermind Kelly’s being so packed it was nearly impossible to get served (I think being dumped, as well, if I remember rightly). Somehow, though, everything came together to feel like something different had happened.

In that sense, I thought last week was an event out of time. The television footage looked like it should really be archive footage with a dateline around 1999. In effect, the obvious gap in the optics around the peace process was a visit from a British monarch to the Republic. Presumably the narrative cocoon that FF had spun around itself couldn’t accomodate such a thing on their watch (oh, the irony), so it seems this could only really have come about with the window of opportunity of a FG government and the urgency of dusk descending on the McAleese presidency.

History now seems to have caught up with reality.

I don’t generally think much about what might be going through Queen Elizabeth’s mind, but I was struck by the peculiarity of her world. On a regular basis, she appears to be shepherded around former colonial possessions to be told that you once owned this, you built this up, this is where you formed ranks and started shooting at us, etc. It must be an oddly quixotic experience to face such constant reminders of the decline of the British Empire. Yet she seems to have great stamina for her age and appeared genuinely enthusiastic while here. I wonder, though, if there wasn’t a hint of fin de siècle about the visit.

The real subtext to the visit, though, and particularly the timing, is in tourism numbers. On the whole, history, and certainly politics, has probably far less to do with any of this than most commentators would like. The weakening of sterling against the euro and general economic environment has depresssed visitor numbers, year on year, for a couple of years now. A quick browse of the Tourism Ireland figures show how badly tourism has actually performed since 2008.

As the UK provides a large proportion of visitors, the poor exchange rate has disproportionately hit tourism numbers. A bounce in visits from the UK over the summer is being talked up as the current economic magic bullet (since the impact of tourism can be immediate). Obviously it’s hoped that growth in US visitors number will follow Obama’s visit too (although there will be more of a delay in the associated growth).

This may just be my pathogenic North Belfast cynicism. The real return that the Irish government wanted to see in this wasn’t in political or historical capital. It wanted good, old-fashioned, quality news coverage that might act as an extended tourism promo. As far as I can tell, the jury is still out on how successful that might have been since rolling news coverage shifted over to cover  sexual assault allegations against IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn. That bloody IMF…

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  • Mick Fealty

    Interesting comparison of the Queen (Monarch) with Clinton (Pres), which I might feed into my next post.

    Spot on re the fact of the country now and for years to come. Just listen to Saturday View of last week and you get a stronger sense of just how beset the Republic is with complexity and deep, deep trouble.

    Tomorrow, it’s Garret’s day. There’ll be time enough soon enough for the more troublesome stuff.

  • Bill Clinton and Dominique Strauss-Kahn in the same thread, John. What a dream team that conjures up! Was their joint inclusion by accident or by design?

    I’ve previously drawn attention to the roles of the UK and Ireland ‘foreign’ departments. You’ve mentioned tourism but I think their remit is much wider than that; you could well think of them as lobbyists for their respective states’ economic interests; the Queen and the President serve as useful focii for their presentations.

    The ‘good news’ stories will be relished by the promoters of tourism across these islands and I think tourism promotion should be ‘elevated’ to or within Strand 3. Just think of the size of the diaspora with links to the archipelago and the enthusiasm of many to walk in the footsteps of their ancestral kith and kin. I do my own little bit in that regard!!

  • wee buns

    It’s been a deeply intriguing week precisely because queenie’s visit has stirred up all nature of historical/political reflection, otherwise absent from mainstream commentary.

    John I was waiting to see who would mention the subtext of broader economics as it’s been a great missing chunk of the analyses pie.

    Not to referring to the so called interdependency of being ‘closest trading partners’ nor to the decline of tourism, but the to the much downplayed fact that British economic stability is completely reliant on the Irish government accepting our position of serfdom within Europe. Hence the hurry & willingness to add to the bail-out fund, risking the disgruntlement it caused to the British populace in these times of austerity.

    For British economic stability, a small price to pay: a slight bowing of the head, a magnanimous speech about mistakes of the past….

    All very interesting, but ultimately mere historic-politico window dressing.

  • Drumlins Rock

    John, Nevin has touched on a point, tourists aren’t the only visitors, in fact they could well be outnumber by the business world, even a lingering suspicion and veiled hostility between the two nations that existed could not have been good for trade, therefore the economic value of easing that tension might be hard to measure but is bound to be significant, and I would guess far outweigh any costs the visit entailed.

  • It was sold and appears to have been a good news story in a bad news world. Everything the queen did was intended to show respect for Ireland up to and including the diamonds, no way would she appear in jeans and shirt would be disrespectful to Ireland!

    The economics should not be a surprise or even a disappointment to anyone, except perhaps the odd republican nerd, these islands have always been interdependent, in every way, from strategic to economic.

    It was a successful visit, to be sure it can’t compare to Bill Clinton and his under the desk antics but then what could…

  • John Ó Néill

    DR – I think that the ‘cost’ of the visit was being regarded (and defended) as seed money towards attracting tourists.

  • John, thanks for widening the conversation. Never pay too much heed to official explanations!

    I hope, whatever the various possible motivations, that this ‘good news’ story brings economic benefits, especially to those who are struggling financially – wherever they live.

  • Alias

    I recall a story about how she and her sister used to put their feet up and have a bloody good laugh at all the people fusing over and bowing to them. They were normal enough to laugh at the absurdity of it all back then. Now I guess she has been too long in the asylum, and has developed that glazed look in her eyes that you see in people who aren’t really there any more. She probably forgets where she is and is reminded whenever someone says “Welcome to such and such…”

    Will the visit bring UK visitors to Ireland? Probably a lot less than would have come if the money was spent on advertising instead.

  • latcheeco

    I think it was potentially too problematic a venture to be initiated just to get visitor numbers up, although this might have been an argument proffered to sell it. With the President sharing those North Belfast pathogens, I can’t see that being the angle she was coming from, but I’m not sure what the motivation was so following the money might well be it.

  • John Ó Néill

    Latcheeco – the McAleese’s probably ticked off the last of their to-do list with the visit (including engineering the UDA the briefest of royal facetime into the bargain). But politically, there was no particular advantage in this since the economic issues are the hulking monolith that overshadows everything at the moment.

    Nevin – the Clinton DSK linkage was incidental – oddly, I’d clearly differentiate them on the pivotal matter of consent – in Clinton’s case he found too many consenting individuals, the accusations against Strauss-Kahn are significantly different.

  • Drumlins Rock

    John, on the big economic issue maybe the importance of this visit could be higher than any of us imagine, it the two economies are that inter related surely removing historic suspicions can enable discussion to focus on the real issues involved.

  • John, as I’ve suggested elsewhere, the McAleese role is most probably an extension of Department of Foreign Affairs input. The DFA and other folks in the Irish ’embassy’ in Bedford Street don’t just take phone-calls.

  • Alias

    Most of those UK “tourists” are Irish people living and working in the UK. They’d return anyway, so discountng them, you’re left with a much greater collapse of actual visitors from the UK than is apparant from the figures.

    Tourism Ireland is not an institution of the Irish state. The Irish state no longer has any sovereignty over the promotion of tourism since it derogated that sovereignty to a supranational authority that was created in a treaty between the UK and Ireland. The British state is now the co-owner of what the Irish state gave away, duly exercising its veto over the promotion of Irish tourism interests to promote British national interests.

    Tourism Ireland does not, therefore, promote Irish national interests. It should be noted that the British state has not given any veto over British sovereignty to the Irish state, beyond a veto over tourism industry of NI, so while the British state may censor Irish national interests in their entirity, the Irish state has no power to similiarly retard the promotion of British national interests as a mutual deterrent.

    The British queen, as the embodiment of the British state, is also the joint constitutional owner of Irish tourism, so her visit is like the joint-chairman starring in the brochure…

  • aquifer

    “Tourism Ireland does not, therefore, promote Irish national interests”

    Yeah whatever.

    Tourism is real foreign currency mainlined into the economic artery, quite useful when the patient is haemorraging cash to all those lovely non-british french and german bankers and may faint at any second.

    More than a coincidence that Ireland is reducing VAT on tourist related activities such as hotels and restaurants.

    Lets stop playing sectarian separatist games. We are in this together and the blame the Brits bandwagon has passed pathetic and is well on its way to delusional..

    The economy is now an Irish problem being managed by Irish people, not a British imposition.

  • ItwasSammyMcNally


    The tourist stuff, although important is surely an arguement of convenience to counter the claims that ‘we cant afford it’ just as those who support and dislike the Royals for ideological/visceral reasons argue over the cost issue in Britian.

    Getting the Dublin shopkeepers on board – whose trade was disrupted – needed to have the promise of – Queen and empty tills today but jam and ringing tills tomorrow.

    To compare the Queen’s visit unfavourably to that of Clinton’s suggests an attempt to downplay the fomer. ‘Irish’ (in lineage and or ideology) presidents such as Clinton have always had pride of place alongside the sacred heart and popes various over the matlepieces of Nationalist Ireland whilst the effigies of the Queen as head of what we (Nationlaists) like to see as the most perfidous of empires (ie the one that we were forced to be part of) might more likely to feature directly under those traditional matlepieces.

    The historic nature of the Queen’s visit had little to do with the politics of the peace of peace process and everything to do with the people who had signed up to it – thats why the invite and the welcome were truly historic in a way that any American presidents could not be.

    p.s. Wasn’t wildly keen on the visit myself and thought her speech was a quite poor (designed primarily not to offend) – except for the Mountbatten reference and the use of Irish.

  • gréagóir o frainclín

    Unionist folk (like the hardcore pseudo republican lot) have sure been somewhat soured by the success of this British visit to the Republic of Ireland.

    The give away are the Unionists rather nasty and sarky comments that are overwhelming while some express that they were indifferent to the whole event.

    Incredible stuff !

    Catch yerselves on! FFS

    We are well aware of ye all!

  • John Ó Néill

    Sammy – it’s a difficult comparison to sustain on a lot of levels. The most obvious is that US Presidents do public schmaltz that provides for a community experience – like the Clinton episode I mentioned, or Reagan in Ballyporeen (and presumably Obama will seek to achieve a similar image over the next few days). Part of the media dynamic is that overt dissolving of the barrier between the US Commander-in-Chief and the public. That plays well at home and regularly plays well abroad. It also democratises the experience – large crowds will attend the concert in College Green and come away with a direct experience of Obama’s visit. He’ll say a few words, Mundy will sing Galway Girl etc. It will be slickly manufactured (in a Chomskyian sense) but it will become an intimate memory for those who attend.
    In contrast, the values around visits by a British monarch are protocol and performance. In many respects it was a dream event for the commentariat since the public were, by and large, unable to directly participate. Much of it revolves around the hoi polloi watching from a distance rather than sitting on the stage. Pete has flagged Fintan O’Toole’s search for the bounce in the story. The closest he could find to a group moment was the Dublin Convention centre, which had a hand-picked audience rather than a popular dimension.
    The tableau that will finish unfolding over the next few days, including the state funeral for Garret Fitzgerald, sort of muralises where the state is at the moment. I stand by my assertion that last week wasn’t as much transformative as recognising change that had already happened (for the record, Fintan O’Toole appears to agree). By next weekend the state may have provided a public demonstration of how it understands and can publicly unpack the values that play out for its closest neighbours on either side. The contrast in sharing values and intimacy, rather than being gradations between the US and UK, is perhaps more pertinently to recognise that both are outside the Eurozone, wherein many of the states current travails are rooted.

  • ItwasSammyMcNally


    re. “I know we were being constantly told how to read the importance of the symbolism, yet the footage of Queen Elizabeth attending various events largely lacked the sense of a departure from history that came with the likes of Bill Clinton’s 1995 visit to Belfast.”

    In terms of a “departure from history” then the Queen’s visit must trump Clinton’s vist by some distance although I would agree Clinton’s visit, in political terms was clearly more significant in that it personalised Yankee involvement (keeping the British honest) in the Peace Process.

    Presumably the Queen arrived – as soon as it was deemed safe for her in political and security terms (post GFA) to do so. The ‘historic’ nature of the event stems from a judgment of the public mood and the British ambassador will have taken regular soundings from political and security sources on both sides of the border. It is probable that SF sensitivites were also a factor as their ‘no protest but no support’ position seems to have been well thought out and consolidated in advance.

    I suppose when I hear Nationalists (such as yourself) downplaying the historic importance of the visit I suspect this is simply down to them – and you in this instance -simply not liking it.

    Dont forget the yankees have never had their embassy burnt down or their ambassador assinated.

  • John Ó Néill

    Sammy – I was mostly pointing up that the timing was out of synch and was largely down to the magic bullet economic policy – it was widely talked up on the airwaves during the lead-in. I think I’d posted well in advance that I’d no strong opinion either way.

  • Greenflag

    ‘on the big economic issue maybe the importance of this visit could be higher than any of us imagine, it the two economies are that inter related surely removing historic suspicions can enable discussion to focus on the real issues involved.’

    Ireland’s dependence on the UK export market has declined from almost 90% as late as 1970 to about 30% today . in day to day business relations between Irish and British businesspeople – politics is not discussed neither is history. interpersonal business relations between Irish and English people have been as good as any and better than most for decades .

    Just because NI has it’s ‘hang ups ‘ on both sides of the sectarian divide doesn’t mean that ROI has to follow suit .

    I’m sure many sluggerites are as disappointed as I am that the much heralded ‘Rapture ‘ promised last Saturday by some American prognosticator name of Harold Camping failed to arrive and those who invested in ‘insurance ‘products so that their earth bound pets would be cared for post rapture have lost their money -there are no refunds .

    It was probably foolish of me to hope (I should have known when Paddy Power refused to take any bets ) that the mother in law would be raptured :(? What was I thinking -This ‘rapture ‘ business ‘ does’nt drop off the eh non saved to the hot spots on the way to the throne room does it?

  • BRS

    ‘The weakening of sterling against the euro’
    John, the entire basis of your post is undermined by the fact that sterling has NOT weakened against the euro
    This week the Euro is worth 87p
    this week last year it was worth86p
    this week in 2009 it was 88p
    How about some accuracy please

  • John Ó Néill

    BRS – if you read the post – visitor numbers have been dropping since 2008. Sterling was at £1 = €1.3924 in January 2008 and had been £1 = €1.507 in January 2007 having largely been at a rate of a £1 to €1.40 and above for the several years up to that point. (You can view the historic rates here). So the euro was worth 71.8p at the start of 2008 and 66.4p at the start of 2007. Unsurprisingly, visitor numbers were peaking around that time.

  • wee buns

    Britain is among the biggest shareholders in the IMF and they also signed up to the EU’s financial stability mechanism.

    More British exports are sold to Ireland than China, India and much of the Far East added together. In addition, the semi-taxpayer-owned Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds Banking Group have huge outstanding loans to Ireland – £50billion and £27billion respectively – so if Ireland is forced to default, the impact could be devastating. The Bank of Ireland also supplies banking services for Britain’s post offices.

    So who is saving who’s arse here, by accepting serfdom to terms of IMF/EU …?