Ireland needs freedom – but not from Britain

The British queen’s visit has attracted little opposition because Ireland’s new oppressors reside in Brussels, not London.

Jason Walsh

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Today sees the first official visit by a British head of state – the queen – to the Republic of Ireland. It’s the stuff history is made of – really, really boring history.

Establishment Ireland is, predictably, flush with excitement at the visit. Politicians and their cheerleaders in the press are weak at the knees with the prospect of this ‘normalisation’ of relations between the two countries, this being code for giving the two states’ seals of approval to the status quo in Northern Ireland – after all, relations between the British and Irish publics have been ‘normal’ for decades, as have been political relations between the states. Hilariously, Ireland’s prime minister Enda Kenny told the BBC the visit represented ‘the start of a new era between both countries’, as though he was Fidel Castro welcoming Barack Obama to Havana.

Equally predictable are the objections raised by republicans. Sinn Féin, happily ensconced in government in Northern Ireland, isn’t really able to protest other than by making a few meek statements about how it is ‘too soon’; instead the party is promoting ‘alternative events’ and even these, let’s face it, distractions, have been buried under the usual tidal wave of Sinn Féin waffle. Instead the mantle has fallen to smaller groups such as Éirígí (meaning ‘Arise’) to hold small demonstrations instead. Likewise, zombie republican microgroups are said to be hoping to disrupt the visit, possibly with a direct attack or a ‘spoiler’ attack in Northern Ireland or Britain.

What is absent amid the rote responses of bent-knee fawning and furrowed-brow jeering is the public. While it wouldn’t be entirely accurate to say people in Ireland don’t care about the visit, enthusiasm is all but non-existent – this despite the best efforts of pro-royal cringers and anti-royal campaigners. Reporting on preparations for the visit for a US newspaper, I found an unusual unwillingness to comment among both members of the public and public figures. A remarkable number of people refused to offer an on-the-record comment and others simply didn’t reply to e-mails and phone messages.

It would be possible to interpret this silence as latent republicanism – but it would be a mistake to do so. Likewise, the notion that people are afraid to express their love of all things royal and British is fanciful in the extreme. Of those who wouldn’t let me name them, several said they were not in favour of the visit but did not want to say so for fear of ‘being lumped in with…’ at which point their voices tended to trail off.

None of the refuseniks hinted at any support for the state visit. Those that did express support tended to be either establishment figures or only positive in the most passive sense imaginable, a fact mirrored in the letters pages of the newspapers and on talk radio with contributors droning on about tourism, the Irish in Britain and looking towards the future. This does not mean that republicanism has been replaced by a desire to hang on to Britannia’s apron strings. Groups like the Reform Movement, which wants Ireland to re-join the British Commonwealth, are so insignificant that to call them ‘marginal’ would be to overstate their significance.

The collapse of popular republicanism, often pinned on the Northern Ireland peace process, is as much a marker of the wider decline of political thinking across the Western world as anything else. The lack of a republican response means that most objections to the queen’s visit have been reduced to the level of complaint. Several people have commented to me about the security restrictions in place, some on the grounds of simple inconvenience, others arguing that civil liberties are being infringed, with people who live along the route forbidden to enter or exit their homes. The main complaint, however, aired both in private and in the media, is the cost of the visit. The total combined bill for security for both the queen’s visit and the immediately following visit of US president Barack Obama has been estimated at €30million. The cost of road repairs along the route can be added to this figure.

These criticisms are not without merit – Dublin’s roads are in astonishingly poor repair and people’s right to freedom of movement is being restricted – but such complaints fall short of being politics with a capital P. The issue of cost, in particular, is a problematic complaint. With Ireland teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, many feel that spending scarce money on frivolities is a simple waste of money. Supporters respond that the visit will result in a net gain through tourism revenue. This isn’t politics, it’s accounting.

In relation to Ireland’s debt, €30million is not only a drop in the ocean, it is also arguably the cost of statecraft. If cost is a pivotal factor then the argument for independence itself is diminished – and indeed, this is precisely what has happened in Ireland in the past year.

As a result of the bailout negotiated last year by the outgoing Irish government – then vaguely objected to, but now vigorously enacted by, the parties that were then in opposition – Ireland has lost its sovereignty, not to Perfidious Albion but to the European Union and International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Ireland’s economic policy is now so severely circumscribed by the so-called ‘troika’ of the EU, IMF and European Central Bank, that the country’s practical ability to govern itself is genuinely open to question. While the troika hands money to Ireland which the government then shovels into the country’s nationalised zombie banks, the cash comes with conditions, conditions that include an incredibly harsh austerity programme designed to save the euro currency, not the Irish economy.

As the queen holds little real political power, it is tempting to characterise the visit, its cheerleaders and it opponents as virtually unreal: a zombie head of state visiting a zombie nation plagued by zombie banks, zombie politicians and zombie protests. The only source of light in this land of the dead is the prospect that this can’t go on forever.

Jason Walsh is a journalist based in Dublin. Visit his website here.

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