The news that not only President Michael D Higgins and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar but also Sinn Féin’s Northern Ireland leader, Michelle O’Neill, are to attend the coronation of King Charles III underlines the enormous improvements in relations between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement.
Their presence in Westminster Abbey reflects the success of the visit by the late Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip to the Republic in 2011, as well as the many visits made by the then Prince Charles.
On the whole, the response in the Republic following the Queen’s death was respectful, and acknowledged the deep sense of loss felt by the British people, so many of whom have family ties to Ireland. Arguably, it also showed an awareness of the affection felt for her by the unionist population in Northern Ireland.
However, the coronation inevitably gives rise to debate on the future of the monarchy. Undoubtedly, much of the support for the institution when the Queen was alive reflected the longevity of her reign, an admiration for her sense of duty, and the feeling that she was one of the last of the war-time generation that endured the Blitz on London and other British cities.
The question is to what extent King Charles can maintain the momentum. A YouGov poll found 51% believe the coronation should not be publicly funded, as against 32% who do.
The recent series of Guardian articles on royal financing, the ongoing controversy about Harry and Meghan and the scandals about Prince Andrew have to be seen in the context of a generational divide in views on the royal family.
Over 50% in opinion polls want to retain the monarchy, but this compares to 60% in 2019. What is particularly significant is that nearly 40% of those aged 18-24 favour an elected head of state.
The challenge for the royal family is to seek to win the support of the young generation, and Charles undoubtedly will hope that Prince William and his wife Kate will be ‘the firm’s’ weapon in that regard.
As an Irishman long resident in England, I am well aware of the ambivalent attitudes of many Irish towards the royal family. For many, they are seen as synonymous with the centuries of ill-treatment of Irish people and yet my memory from when I lived in Ireland is that there was still a lot of interest in the actions of the royals, and the welcome given to the late Queen in 2011 reflected a change in attitudes as part of the peace process.
The longer I am here, the more I understand the different perspectives British people have on the monarchy. For the older generation, it is seen as part and parcel of Britishness, as the one unchanging institution in a country which has experienced enormous change in their lifetimes.
Moreover, the monarch is seen as being above politics and I have heard comments to the idea of a politician becoming head of state, and that, for example, a President David Cameron would not command the allegiance of Labour supporters, just as a President Gordon Brown would not be backed by Tory supporters.
However, campaign groups like Republic will argue that someone prominent in sport or business or the arts could conceivably fill the role.
For older people familiar with the footage of the coronation of the late Queen, there is likely to be a greater focus on the details of the ceremony than for young people.
One of the aspects which has surfaced is the religious dimension, given that the king is supreme governor of the Church of England.
Decades ago, the then Prince Charles caused controversy when he floated the idea that the monarch could be ‘Defender of Faith’ rather than simply ‘Defender of the Faith’, a title held by British monarchs since Henry VIII, and bestowed on him before the Reformation by Pope Leo X. The ‘FD’ abbreviation is found on British coins.
It seems to me that Charles’ intention was misunderstood, and since accession to the throne he made very clear that he is Defender of ‘the’ Faith. He also promised to protect the Presbyterian system of church governance in the Church of Scotland.
However, like his late mother, he sees a key part of his role as protecting religious freedom for all, and building bridges between the various faith groups in the United Kingdom.
It was announced on Saturday that there would be involvement by non-Christian faith groups for the first time. Before Charles sets out in the state coach, greetings will be given by faith representatives, but will not be amplified out of respect for the fact that the coronation takes place on the Jewish sabbath, when orthodox Jews do not use electrical devices.
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and his wife Valerie will be guests of King Charles and Queen Camilla the night before the ceremony, so that he could make his journey before the sabbath began.
Members of the House of Lords from the Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh traditions will present the king with objects with no explicit Christian symbolism, but one of the Bible readings will be given by the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, who is a Hindu.
The service will begin with a procession of representatives of the Bahá’i, Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Sunni and Shia Muslim, Sikh and Zoroastrian communities.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby will say that the Church of England seeks to foster an environment where “people of all faiths and beliefs may live freely”. However, he also will stress that the ceremony is, ‘first and foremost’, an act of Christian worship.
Charles will say he is a ‘faithful Protestant’ and promise to ‘defend and uphold’ Protestant succession to the throne.
The involvement of female bishops, and the inclusion of prayers and hymns in Irish as well as Welsh and Scots Gaelic, is another contrast to the 1953 ceremony.
We also have to remember that Charles is not merely being crowned as king of the United Kingdom, but of Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, Bahamas, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, the Solomon Islands and Tuvalu.
This is a matter of debate in some of those countries, and the decision of Barbados to become a republic in 2021 has undoubtedly boosted the republican cause.
However, what is beyond dispute is that the coronation will be a significant moment in British history, as the great majority of the population obviously were not born at the time of the last such ceremony in 1953.
Declan McSweeney lives in England but is originally from Offaly. He worked for over 18 years for the now-closed Offaly Express and has also worked as a journalist in the UK.