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Sunday 22 May 2011

I'm proud to be Irish -- and I'm proud to be British too

We are not the most oppressed people ever, in fact, we are among the least oppressed, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

JOHN, an old friend, English and well-informed about history, rang me on Wednesday night to rant about the coverage of the Queen's visit.

"Dammit!" he cried. "They're going on about the 1916 executions without mentioning that this insurrection took place when the UK was fighting for its life! Maybe it was unwise to hang or shoot these people, but surely it's understandable. It's being presented as an atrocity, which it bloody wasn't."

I agreed with him. I'm always annoyed at our lack of perspective about the wrongs done us by our colonisers. Look, every country in the world has trouble with the neighbours. We had only one neighbour, so all our grievances are focused in one direction. What do you think it was like being Poland? What do you think Germany or France would have done in the face of an armed revolt when they were fighting a war in a place they thought was part of their territory? They would have rounded up all the rebels and killed the lot, that's what.

We're not the Most Oppressed People Ever (MOPE). Actually, we're among the Least Oppressed People Ever (LOPE). As colonial masters go, the British were the most benign. Don't the whingers know what the Spaniards did? Or the Portuguese? Or what Roger Casement discovered plucky little Belgium was up to in the Congo?

However, what John was complaining about was the coverage of the visit on British television, which largely seemed to have bought into our national victim-narrative -- so the Queen was represented as acknowledging in the Garden of Remembrance that those commemorated there were legitimate freedom fighters. Well, actually, she didn't.

She is a courteous woman who was just showing respect to those her hosts revere. She knows her history, so in Croke Park she will have been fully aware that the murders there were a response to brutal assassinations, that some of those who fired were Irish and that the British government was appalled by what happened.

There is a perfectly decent alternative narrative -- to which I subscribe -- which is that we would all have been much better off and much suffering would have been avoided had we stuck with constitutional nationalism and tried to seduce unionists rather than murder them. I did not like our Taoiseach entertaining the Queen under the portrait of the gunman whose orders precipitated the events of Bloody Sunday. Nor did I like our President's failure to acknowledge, even obliquely, that among the IRA's hideous murders were those of Prince Philip's uncle, Lord Mountbatten and members of his family. As former prime minister John Major said in Friday's Times, most of the 'talk of reconciliation has focused on the Queen's reconciling Ireland to the past policies of the British Government. But reconciliation is a two-way street, Irish republicanism has its martyrs, but so does British unionism'.

I wasn't too chuffed either that the President chose to say that like "her fellow-countrymen and women" she "was deeply proud of Ireland's difficult journey to national sovereignty".

Madam President, this countrywoman of yours is one of those who are deeply ashamed of aspects of that journey. People like me admire Daniel O'Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell and all the good Irish people who supported them and their successors in their constitutional struggles.

Queen Elizabeth's brilliant speech hit the spot with sensitivity and honesty. So much of the visit, she said, "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." (A lesson our political necrophiliacs could usefully learn.)

The queen also delicately refused to be cast as a repentant spokeswoman for oppressors. The two islands had experienced "heartache, turbulence and loss" which had "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".

I am Irish, because of my birth and upbringing, and British because I have lived in England since I graduated. I cannot become English, but Britishness is like a woolly overcoat that fits anyone who chooses to wear it. I love both my countries passionately. Despite the odd cavil, I think last week the Irish were magnificent hosts and the British magnificent guests. I'm proud to be Irish. And British. And, if John's reading this, I hope he's mollified.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards