There’s a ton of good comment on Nuzhound re Michael D’s state visit to the United Kingdom [makes a change from the single transferable column much in evidence at home this week – Ed]. It’s hard to know what to leave out of John Spain’s column for IrishCentral, so here goes:
The plain people of Ireland, however, are far less impressed by all the hype about the visit. Judged by the reaction on newspaper websites and Twitter, they regard the whole thing as slightly comical and completely irrelevant to where we are at these days.
“God save the Queen – she doesn’t deserve this,” said one message writer, no doubt thinking of the tortuous waffle Michael D. will be inflicting on his host.
“A self-serving, self-regarding exercise in hubris and pomposity,” said another.
“What a waste of taxpayers’ money – couldn’t he have gone Ryanair?” asked another.
“Will be avoiding the TV like the black death for the next 10 days – this s*** is truly nauseating in this day and age,” said another.
Avoiding the TV seemed like good advice. In case us ordinary folk might not grasp the importance of what was happening, RTE began the build-up before Higgins had even left on Monday afternoon. This included coverage of his departure from the Aras (his official residence) where he was seen off by a guard of honor and military band, followed by coverage of his departure speech at the airport, heavy with the significance and symbolism of what he was embarking on.
There was also a special interview for the six o’clock news on RTE. And all that before he had even left the country!
There’s a very human reason for this. It’s a state visit. That is, it’s par for the general course, full of pomp, ceremony and circumstance. The precise circumstance being a President who not only frequently visits family in London, but used to live there.
A far cry from the emotion of the Queens visit to the Republic three years ago which was charged with emotion of an old lady finally being warmly received – firstly by the Irish President in the former symbol of colonial power now transformed to a pinnacle of national sovereignty – and secondly by the vast majority of the Irish people.
Including, as it happens, the very first Sinn Fein Mayor to meet a British sovereign, Michael Browne. It did not endear him to his party until the day he died a few months later.
The fact is that around a million Irish born people live in Britain and some of them have been there for decades. They have worked there, married there, raised children there and made lives there that were impossible “at home” in Ireland.
So they don’t need a lot of speeches and symbolic gestures to tell them about the special relationship that exists between the two islands. They’ve been living it for years.
They are also aware of the difficulties there have been. They’ve got through the uneasy times during The Troubles when the IRA was bombing British cities.
They know that even then the British kept the doors open and gave us free access when it would have been very easy for them to introduce restrictions. So in a very practical way they understand that there is a “special relationship” between us.
The same applies, of course, to the people here at home, because with a million Irish in Britain there is not a family in Ireland that does not have connections there. To repeat, some of these connections go back decades. And we really don’t need a state visit to Britain by the President to validate or give expression to these connections.
That said, a formal state visit to Britain by an Irish president is a welcome development and it’s long overdue. But it should be seen simply as a celebration of the positive ties between us rather than weighing it down with emotive blather about symbolism and great historical significance.
He also notes the only thing the northern press seemed to notice the whole way through the four days:
The most talked about aspect of the state visit was probably the decision by Martin McGuinness to accept the invitation from the Queen to Tuesday night’s state dinner at Windsor Castle. That can’t have been easy for him. But it was probably a lot harder for the Queen, since her favorite uncle Lord Mountbatten was blown up in Sligo by the IRA, which made it deeply personal.
Of course, like McGuinness, a lot of Republicans had friends and relatives shot by the British Army. So it can’t be easy for them either.
Many people here would question whether there is an equivalence of generosity involved, as Sinn Fein imply. But McGuinness has been remarkably consistent in his determination to put the past behind him and to move forward to build a new peaceful future for the North hand-in-hand with old enemies. Accepting the Queen’s invitation to dinner is part of that.
Of course the Sinn Fein position on this also reflects the fact that they badly miscalculated when they snubbed the Queen’s visit to Ireland three years ago. That visit was hugely popular here and Sinn Fein, which is trying to broaden their appeal to mainstream voters, doesn’t want to be seen to be stuck in the past and mean in their approach.
So they’re not making that mistake this time. No doubt that was also a factor in McGuinness’s conversion on the road to Windsor.
And as a footnote:
One final aspect of all this that is interesting is the difference it reveals between the Irish in Britain and the Irish in America.
For so many of the Irish in America, even those who went just a few decades back, they come to regard themselves as Americans relatively quickly. Irish Americans, of course, but Americans first.
The Irish in Britain never really become British, no matter how long they are there. This contrasts with Indian immigrants to the U.K., for example, who would be quite angry if anyone claimed they were not British.
But the interesting thing is that although the Irish in Britain don’t want to be British, that is completely accepted by the British.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty