Britain and Ireland bury the hatchet
The first ever state visit to the UK by an Irish president has been hailed as a triumph. Does this mark an end to the long history of violence and suspicion between these neighbours?
The words of the Irish president, Michael D. Higgins, were remarkable and true: ‘The relationship between our two islands has achieved a closeness and warmth that once seemed unachievable.’
They came in a speech he made to both Houses of Parliament at Westminster on the first day of his state visit to the UK — the first such visit made by an Irish president in the 93 years since Ireland became an independent state.
The two countries have a long, complex shared history, at times creative and beneficial, but also sometimes violent. Ireland’s long struggle for independence brought death and suffering on both sides. The conflict over Northern Ireland, which remained British after Irish independence, killed more than 3,000 people in the period known as ‘The Troubles’ which lasted until the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
Yet there was a powerful sign of how much has changed at the state banquet for President Higgins at Windsor Castle. One of the guests was Martin McGuinness, a former commander of the Irish Republican Army, who fought the British army in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. Today he is Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister, and though still dedicated to a United Ireland, he stood for the national anthem and toasted the 'health and happiness’ of the Queen.
President Higgins’s trip follows the Queen’s groundbreaking visit to the Irish Republic three years ago. It too intended to bury the ghosts of the past and celebrate the strong ties between the countries.
Britain, for example, now exports more to Ireland than to Brazil, India, Russia and China combined. Possibly a quarter of the UK population is partly of Irish descent. The Irish still flock across the Irish Sea for jobs. (President Higgins himself first came to work as a waiter in Brighton.) As one Irish commentator living in London puts it, ‘there remains a familial kind of relationship between the two countries.’
The problem of the North
Yet some observe that the future of Northern Ireland is still in dispute. Tensions, sometimes violent, between Nationalists and Unionists remain part of daily life. The number of ‘peace walls’ separating the communities has increased since 1998. Militant Republicans, like those who exploded the bomb in Omagh, are still at large.
Others say that only by the steady building of confidence can Northern Ireland, in time, be made peaceful. They applauded the Irish president when he said, ‘of course there is still a road to be travelled – the road of a lasting and creative reconciliation – and our two governments have a shared responsibility to encourage and support those who need to complete the journey of making peace permanent and constructive.’
- Will the good relationship between Ireland and Britain continue?
- What issues are neighbouring countries most likely to disagree about?
- Imagine you are a head of state. Discuss in groups what you should and shouldn’t do in your job of representing the country.
- The histories of Ireland and Britain are intertwined. Research how far back the connections go and list four of the most important episodes in their joint history.
Some People Say...
“We have always found the Irish a bit odd. They refuse to be English.’Winston Churchill”
What do you think?
Q & A
- What’s so important about a state visit?
- Although they may not bring about any immediate great changes in relationships between countries, they can act as an important symbolic gesture. For example, just by paying his or her respects at a memorial, a head of state can change attitudes and bring about a better understanding between nations.
- How far do the Irish and British go back?
- People have been crossing the Irish Sea in both directions for more than a thousand years. For example, the original Scots came from Ireland around 400AD and settled in south-west Scotland. Then in the 17th century many Protestant Scots settled in the north of Ireland. And in the 19th century many Irish came to Glasgow and central Scotland to build its railways and work in its mines, factories and shipyards.
- In the 1918 UK election Irish Republicans won a landslide victory in Ireland. They formed a breakaway government and declared independence from the UK. After bitter fighting with the British army a truce was declared in 1921 and the Irish Free State was created in 1922.
- Many of the greatest writers in English have been Irish, among them, Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, W. B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett.
- Good Friday Agreement
- A 1998 settlement between political parties in Northern Ireland and also an agreement between the UK and Irish governments which set out the future government of the province. It brought about power-sharing between Nationalist and Unionist politicians and ended the fighting between various paramilitary forces.
- United Ireland
- The idea that Ireland should consist of a single independent nation composed of its traditional 32 counties. The current Irish Republic has 26. Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, has six.
- The state visit by the Queen to Ireland was warmly received by very many Irish people of all political persuasions.
- ‘peace walls’
- The first barriers separating Unionist and Nationalist neighbourhoods in Belfast were built in 1969. There are now 48 of them, ranging from a few hundred yards to three miles long. They can be up to 25 feet high.
- On the 15th August 1998 a splinter group of the IRA exploded a car bomb in the town of Omagh. It killed 29 people and injured 220 others.