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…