Saturday, May 21, 2011

Forging Better Relationships


The Queen's speech, St Patrick's Hall, Dublin Castle
It seems at long last that a veritable watershed or significant turning point has occurred in the troubled history of the relationship between Ireland and England.  It is very rare for this writer to make comments on either political or current affairs, but I cannot let this week past into happy memory without at least adverting to the sheer good will, good feeling and "good vibes" which were palpable in all our media here in Ireland - both written and broadcast - at the long-awaited and much-heralded state visit of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and HRH Prince Philip to our small island nation.   She truly did receive a "CÉAD MÍLE FÁILTE" or "HUNDRED THOUSAND WELCOMES."  This in no way surprised this writer or indeed the vast majority of our population.  As an Irishman, and as a speaker of Gaeilge, our first language, I am well acquainted with traditional Irish/Celtic/Gaelic spirituality and customs which place welcome(fáilte) on a par with generosity (flaithiúlacht) as their key qualities. 

Our welcome and our generosity have long been qualities of our small Irish country (four and a half million) and of our greater nation (which includes many, many millions world wide who also claim Irish origins).  This greater Irish nation abroad our first president Mary Robinson called our "Irish diaspora" on her inauguration.  And what a leader and what a great Irish woman, European and world class stateswoman that lady is!  Her successor as Uachtaráin na hÉireann, Mary McAleese is on a par with this great lady as a truly internationally recognised significant personage of peace.  To both of them we owe much that has culminated in Queen Elizabeth II's wonderfully successful and spiritually and morally uplifting visit to our small indebted country.

A New Objectivity about the Past?

A smiling Queen is greeted by the Tánaiste, Mr. Gilmore
We as a nation have come a long way, as indeed has Great Britain, a former great coloniser of other nations.  It is also a truism to state that both nations have learnt a lot about each other and about themselves in the past century or so, and perhaps more recently since the calming of the much troubled North of Ireland and the outbreak there of a new and significant peace.  That deep-rooted prejudices are just beginning to soften is evident in this much publicised and most successful visit of Elizabeth II to our shores.  That there remains quite a number of die-hards of both nationalist and unionist traditions in the North of Ireland is undeniable, but it is most assuredly a dwindling but still dangerous number.  These die-hards on either side must never be let contaminate again the minds and hearts and souls of the majority of peace-loving and law-abiding citizens in either Roman Catholic or Protestant traditions north or south of the border.  The fact that the First Minister of Northern Ireland, Mr Peter Robinson of the DUP is able "to do business" with the Second Minister, Mr Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin, both parties representative of the more extreme fringes of either political persuasion is a testament to the softening of attitudes and to a new attitude of openness reaching across the political and religious divide.  However, it has been commented widely in the media and indeed expressed to the author of these few words that Sinn Féin mush surely have missed one of the greater opportunities they have had in more recent years to make a difference to the furtherance of good relations and good will.

Time is a good healer.  How often have we heard those words spoken by our mothers and fathers over the years.  Indeed it is, provided the person who suffers does not let the suffering they have endured "make a stone of the heart" as W.B. Yeats says.  I realise here that I am using Yeats' words somewhat creatively as the whole quotation reads: "Too long a sacrifice makes a stone of the heart."  Too much suffering and too much bitterness and hatred towards the authors of that suffering certainly warp minds, hearts and souls and reduce these to mere stones.  The change of hearts, minds and souls is a slow, slow, slow, slow process.  Needless to say, an tUachtarán, Mary McAleese and her husband Dr. Martin know the truth of this previous sentence intimately as both have worked long and hard over the past fourteen years of the president's two terms of office to bring this change about.  There have, of course, been many, many others like former taoisigh Dr Garrett Fitzgerald R.I.P., Mr. Albert Reynolds and Mr Bertie Aherne here in the South.  There have been many more, too, from the North of Ireland from both sides of the divide, not to mention former Prime Minister of Great Britain, Mr. Tony Blair.

The beautiful smile says it all!
With the passing of the years, wounds do heal, provided we cease to become victims and avengers; provided we learn to be open to the inner healing of the psyche; provided we do not sow the seeds of hate in the garden of our souls and water them with our tears; provided we learn to remember in a more objective way, with an objectivity uncoupled from either hate or the desire for revenge.  I placed a question mark after the heading above.  Can we become more objective about our past?  Yes we can.  The Queen and the President are showing us symbolically that we can.  The British Monarch and Head of the Church of England has bowed her head at our national shrine - The Garden of Remembrance, and our Uachtarán has bowed hers at the cenotaphs remembering the fallen of First and Second World Wars both at home and abroad.  Symbols speak so much louder than words.

My father's twin brother fought in World War II as a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Navy.  Most of my uncles on my mother's side worked to build up the bombed cities of England during that same war, while one of them was a stoker on a ship in the British Merchant Navy.  I have many relatives in Great Britain.  What Irish person has not?  England has given us much as well as taken much from us as an tUachtarán's speech has outlined.  However, objectively we must acknowledge both and work from there. Both the President's speech and that of the Queen which I give hereunder in full express this understanding of the past, that is, that full acknowledgement of faults, failings, hatreds and atrocities committed or enacted by both sides, that expression of sorrow by both sides to each other, that a firm determination to move forward together in friendship and in a new truthfulness can only bring a deeper and more authentic relationship between two island nations which literally lie together as bedfellows in the Atlantic Ocean. Let us salute two great women: Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain and an tUachtarán Mary McAleese of the Republic of Ireland (Éire).  Go maire sibh an céad!  May you both live to be 100!  Should anyone doubt the success of this visit see this report in The Telegraph: Queen in Ireland.

A Uachtaráin agus a chairde (President and friends).

Prince Philip and I are delighted to be here, and to experience at first hand Ireland’s world-famous hospitality.

Together we have much to celebrate: the ties between our people, the shared values, and the economic, business and cultural links that make us so much more than just neighbours, that make us firm friends and equal partners.

Madam President, speaking here in Dublin Castle it is impossible to ignore the weight of history, as it was yesterday when you and I laid wreaths at the Garden of Remembrance.

Indeed, so much of this visit reminds us of the complexity of our history, its many layers and traditions, but also the importance of forbearance and conciliation. Of being able to bow to the past, but not be bound by it.

Of course, the relationship has not always been straightforward; nor has the record over the centuries been entirely benign. It is a sad and regrettable reality that through history our islands have experienced more than their fair share of heartache, turbulence and loss.

These events have touched us all, many of us personally, and are a painful legacy. We can never forget those who have died or been injured, and their families. To all those who have suffered as a consequence of our troubled past I extend my sincere thoughts and deep sympathy. With the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all. But it is also true that no-one who looked to the future over the past centuries could have imagined the strength of the bonds that are now in place between the governments and the people of our two nations, the spirit of partnership that we now enjoy, and the lasting rapport between us. No-one here this evening could doubt that heartfelt desire of our two nations.

Madam President, you have done a great deal to promote this understanding and reconciliation. You set out to build bridges. And I have seen at first hand your success in bringing together different communities and traditions on this island. You have also shed new light on the sacrifice of those who served in the First World War. Even as we jointly opened the Messines Peace Park in 1998, it was difficult to look ahead to the time when you and I would be standing together at Islandbridge as we were today.

That transformation is also evident in the establishment of a successful power-sharing Executive in Northern Ireland. A knot of history that was painstakingly loosened by the British and Irish Governments together with the strength, vision and determination of the political parties in Northern Ireland.

What were once only hopes for the future have now come to pass; it is almost exactly 13 years since the overwhelming majority of people in Ireland and Northern Ireland voted in favour of the agreement signed on Good Friday 1998, paving the way for Northern Ireland to become the exciting and inspirational place that it is today. I applaud the work of all those involved in the peace process, and of all those who support and nurture peace, including members of the police, the Gardaí, and the other emergency services, and those who work in the communities, the churches and charitable bodies like Co-operation Ireland. Taken together, their work not only serves as a basis for reconciliation between our people and communities, but it gives hope to other peacemakers across the world that through sustained effort, peace can and will prevail.

For the world moves on quickly. The challenges of the past have been replaced by new economic challenges which will demand the same imagination and courage. The lessons from the peace process are clear; whatever life throws at us, our individual responses will be all the stronger for working together and sharing the load.

There are other stories written daily across these islands which do not find their voice in solemn pages of history books, or newspaper headlines, but which are at the heart of our shared narrative. Many British families have members who live in this country, as many Irish families have close relatives in the United Kingdom.

These families share the two islands; they have visited each other and have come home to each other over the years. They are the ordinary people who yearned for the peace and understanding we now have between our two nations and between the communities within those two nations; a living testament to how much in common we have.

These ties of family, friendship and affection are our most precious resource. They are the lifeblood of the partnership across these islands, a golden thread that runs through all our joint successes so far, and all we will go on to achieve. They are a reminder that we have much to do together to build a future for all our grandchildren: the kind of future our grandparents could only dream of.

So we celebrate together the widespread spirit of goodwill and deep mutual understanding that has served to make the relationship more harmonious, close as good neighbours should always be.

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