There is a very peculiar little controversy going on in Dublin over inviting the “royals “ to 1916 commemorations. It involves catty exchanges between Maurice Manning, NUI chancellor, one of several former nearly men in Irish politics and a part time historian, and the equally learned professional modern historian Diarmaid Ferriter. In his latest blast in the Irish Times, Ferriter opposes the idea which the newspaper itself seems to approve. It would be too much to say that this is a re-run of the old revisionist debate. (Here is an example of the excitement it could generate).For Ferriter is no unreconstructed celebrant of the Irish national foundation mythology. Here, he makes an impeccable historian’s case against such a visit.
It is, however, surely legitimate for historians and others to strive for some distance between history and current politics so that the issue of motivations, loyalties and identities 100 years ago are not lost.
Many people are legitimately annoyed about the idea of a royal presence in Dublin in 2016 in the context of a “shared history”, an initiative unveiled without any consultation with the public or the commemoration advisory group appointed by the Government, of which I am a member.
At a public consultation meeting organised by that group last month in Dublin, its chairman Maurice Manning stated: “Our job is not the job of the peace process” and that in relation to commemoration, “we have a duty to prevent hijacking by the Government or anyone else”.
Such reflection does not have to involve ignoring those who served in crown forces; we are long past the stage of a single, heroic, nationalist narrative of Irish history, and the State is fully committed to remembering the Irish who served and died in the first World War. Too much preoccupation with what Britain and Ireland share, however, might prevent an appreciation of what divides them, and we should not allow reflection on those historic and contemporary differences to be sidestepped or bullied out of existence.
Manning has accused Ferriter of being “precious“
But what invitation are they squabbling over? It is about no more than a cloud of euphoric speculation floating in the wake of the state visit.
The decision to invite the royal family was first mooted in September by the Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore. It would appear to have been confirmed by Queen Elizabeth II in her speech in Windsor Castle last week when she said: “My family and my government will stand alongside you, Mr President, and your ministers, throughout the anniversaries of the war and of the events that led to the creation of the Irish Free State.”
The whole idea has failed to register in London where as far as I can see, nobody has ever heard of it. It is entirely a Dublin floater and that’s where it should remain. It would be a pity to cast any shadow over the impact of the two state visits by suggesting – wrongly -that the British establishment are trying to muscle in on an Irish act. There may be strains in the peace process but it will survive without this. The definitive enduring statements of British- Irish relations have already been made.