Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Queen in Northern Ireland - No Cause for Alarm

Today is the day that HM Queen Elizabeth II and HRH the Duke of Edinburgh will visit Northern Ireland as part of the U.K.-wide Diamond Jubilee tour. That, in itself, is rather newsworthy as previous royal visits to Northern Ireland were never announced ahead of time for fear that republican terrorists would launch an attack on the Royal Family. It says a great deal about the peace of that region that this is now being done. What really made the headlines, of course, was that the Queen would meet with, even for just a moment, with Martin McGuinness, a leader of Sinn Fein, deputy first minister of the power-sharing government of Northern Ireland and a former member of the Irish Republican Army. This weighs heavily particularly in light of the murder of the Earl Mountbatten of Burma in a bombing by the Provisional IRA in 1979. Last year when HM the Queen visited the Republic of Ireland in a historic state visit the leadership of Sinn Fein (long regarded as the political arm of the IRA) said no to any meeting with the British monarch by any of their members because, in their words, it was still too soon since the infamous “Troubles” which shook the British Isles decades ago.

The decision was taken, apparently, by Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams who said, “it’s good for Ireland” and added that it will cause difficulties with his own members, at least the most staunchly republican among them. The context of this is a charitable meeting with members of Co-operation Ireland which fosters a coming together between the Catholic and Protestant communities which McGuinness will attend and which the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh will be visiting. Nothing earth-shattering in and of itself but even a momentary meeting of just a few seconds in a place still so sensitive and where so many hard feelings still remain it is extremely symbolic. Yet, because of this atmosphere and the way in which such extreme sensitivity prevails, it can be easy to overlook just how things have developed since the Good Friday Agreement and the ensuing peace. When one considers the basic facts, one can only view this as something of a triumph for the United Kingdom over those who have challenged the sovereignty of the Queen over Northern Ireland.

When Irish independence became a real possibility and later, for the Irish Free State (later the Republic of Ireland) a reality all of the major Irish parties asserted their support for the unity of the entire island of Ireland and an end to the partition. This was not forthcoming and the IRA began their guerilla campaign against the British and Protestant-Unionist forces in Northern Ireland in an effort to force the British out of Northern Ireland and unite the counties with the Republic of Ireland. They consistently refused to recognize the sovereignty of the Queen over Northern Ireland and those who were captured by British authorities claimed to be political prisoners rather than common criminals or terrorists (as of course they were held to be in London). Yet, since that time, the Republic of Ireland has made no effort to reclaim the north and has accepted partition in fact if not always in name. The IRA at last agreed to lay down their arms and Sinn Fein now sits in a coalition government with the Unionists to administer Northern Ireland under the British Crown. The public has shown itself to be tired of conflict and ready to accept things as they are to go on with their lives in peace and no longer regard their disagreements or their situation as worth fighting about.

In short, the United Kingdom won and the Irish republicans lost, whether they are inclined to admit it or not. British sovereignty over Northern Ireland was challenged, that challenge was defeated, those opposing it have, in their deeds if not their words, accepted the “rule” of the Queen over Northern Ireland and while Sinn Fein was given a cold shoulder when they stood for election in the Republic of Ireland, Protestant firebrand Ian Paisley was given a seat in the House of Lords by former British Prime Minister Gordon (is alive) Brown. The Republic of Ireland accepts British sovereignty over Northern Ireland as do the majority of Catholics in Northern Ireland now, even though they might not be enthusiastic about, they are not willing to challenge it. Of course, some still make trouble as some probably always will but these IRA fringe groups are few and far between with virtually no popular support behind them and whose actions are denounced by both Catholic and Protestant communities in Ulster.

As soon as the news of this brief meeting (and even “meeting” is probably too strong a word, for the most part they will simply be in the same room for a few minutes) I have seen a great deal of British outrage over it. There may be just as much Irish republican outrage but I have not heard it (we do tend to move in rather different circles as they say). However, while I understand why anyone would be upset that the Queen would ever come into contact with someone who was ever in the IRA, I would like to tell all loyal Britons to just take a deep breath, relax and don’t get all worked up over this. It’s really not that important and Britons, and the whole Unionist-Protestant crowd, have the least reason to be upset over any of this since, as we have seen, they have relatively little to be upset about. If I could say anything to the British who are upset over this it would be simply, “Relax! You’ve won!” Northern Ireland is still under the British Crown, it is not part of the Republic of Ireland and even Dublin doesn’t really want it to be and even Sinn Fein have, by their actions, accepted British sovereignty over Northern Ireland and (in fact if not in name) recognized the authority of HM the Queen over Northern Ireland. There’s no real reason for Britain or Ulster loyalists to be upset about this. The Irish republicans have more cause to be upset (they lost their fight) but even most of them, it seems, have exhausted their reserves of anger and have just accepted the situation as it is. The fact that this meeting can happen only goes to show how Irish partition is a non-issue for the vast majority of people in both countries. The Crown was challenged and the Crown prevailed.

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