As a sizeable part of the Irish people continues to mull over the recent speech by the British head of state in Dublin Castle, where she is widely regarded as having all but apologised for Britain’s unwelcome presence in Ireland over the last several centuries, it is sobering to see how Irish and British perceptions of the same event can be very different indeed.
While Ireland’s (thoroughly anglicised) journalistic classes have issued squeals of delight over the words of ‘the Queen’, the words of many British journalists make for far more sobering reading. In contrast to the celebrations of some in Ireland at this latest chapter in the ‘end game’, in Britain the speech has been presented (with some notable exceptions) as a fair apportioning of blame to all sides. Yes, goes this particular British narrative, we did some things wrong – but so did you.
While of course a formal apology from the British head of state was nigh impossible (for all sorts of British etiquette and constitutional reasons, the head of state allegedly being above national or international politics and so not permitted to make such utterances – somewhat untrue of course, since there have been many exceptions to the rule, particularly when trade or finance was involved) some expression of remorse was fully expected and widely flagged by Irish Government sources. The dampening of these heavy expectations in the hours before the speech itself, when it became clear no such official mea culpa by Britain was to be forthcoming, added to the air of the British having played a masterly diplomatic stroke and of the Irish falling for it hook, line and sinker (leaving Gerry Adams and the Sinn Féin leadership, who had similarly been given the nod and wink of what was expected to emerge, swinging in the wind – hence the contradictory messages coming from the boys in green).
Establishment Ireland, desperate for any sign of sorrow or contrition on behalf of the British, seized upon the little enough that was in the speech and ran with it, exaggerating the words out of all proportion from what was actually said – or even interpreted as saying (yet again illustrating how the Irish political establishment so frequently craves British validation in one of the more bizarre of our post-colonial neuroses).
A simple expression of sympathy for mutual and shared suffering and wrongdoing became an apparent rapprochement of ‘historic’ (or histrionic) proportions that has been played out across Ireland’s national media. However in Britain that self same speech, and self same words, have been cast in some quarters as having a very different meaning indeed. Far from an apology, they say, the speech represented an apportioning of blame to all sides: an equal loading of the heavy burden of history.
The Irish, so say the British in this latest bout of counter-history, are equally to blame for the conflict of the last 800 years (presumably by not being British – or surrendering and becoming British). This piece from the British newspaper, The Independent, a traditional liberal and centre-left publication, reflects a slightly more considered way of putting it:
‘In a powerful and moving address in Dublin Castle last night, in front of 172 guests, the Queen spoke of the need to remember all those whose lives had been affected by centuries of strife. She said the relationship had not always been straightforward but stopped short of delivering an apology for Britain’s actions in Ireland, saying that looking back, both nations could have acted differently.’
Really? So how do the British believe the people of Ireland could have acted differently to the invasion, occupation and annexation of their nation? Or to the attempted extinguishing of their very identity as a race? Held a flower show? Sold some raffle tickets? A strongly worded letter to the London Times newspaper, perhaps?
In another piece the Daily Mail, a right-wing British populist newspaper, makes it even clear – albeit with some more soft soap:
‘While not apologising for Britain’s role in the ‘troubled past’, in her speech the Queen made clear that mistakes had been made on both sides and voiced her ‘deep sympathy’ for all those who had lost loved ones.’
One mistake presumably being the Irish people’s refusal to do the right thing by the British and simply lie down and die. Perhaps the Daily Mail, famous for its censorious ‘flog ‘em and hang ‘em’ attitudes to law and order and the rights of victims to defend themselves by all means necessary, is less taken with rebellious Micks standing up for their rights than WWII veterans and OAPs. As George Orwell put it: ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.’
Far from an apology for past crimes and misdemeanours what we have now is a new version of Irish and British history where the victim is to blame for their victimhood. Or rather, the victim has become an aggressor too. How extraordinary. How would the British press react, say, to a speech by a German head of state in Israel, where sorrow was expressed at the historical events around the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust, but where the intent was to say: it was your fault too!
Or how about a visiting German dignitary to British soil saying to the British: ‘World War II? Well, we regret that it happened, and wish that it hadn’t, and sympathise with all who suffered, but you know, you guys were in the wrong too.’
Such an attitude would receive short shrift in the British media, from right or left, and correctly so.
The simple fact is that the people of Ireland were not the aggressors in the history of the British presence in our country. We were not equally culpable in the history of violence that has blighted the relations between our two island nations. A double-meaning speech, and the back-room briefings of the Downing Street spin-doctors to favoured journalists and editors, should not go unchallenged. Let us accept the British head of state’s speech as we believe it to be: an apology on behalf of the British nation for centuries of shame, or as close as they can bring themselves to it. It was elegant, genuinely said, and with real impact.
Let us not, after the fact, allow the British to rewrite the narrative so that it becomes an Irish nation accepting the role of aggressor, another player in an equal, almost legitimate, struggle between nations and peoples. It was not equal, it was not legitimate. The British were the invader, we the defenders. The British the colonisers, we the colonised (and how well did that part of President Mary McAleese’s speech go down with the British media gallery?). Our history is replete with Irish men and women who tried the peaceful route to freedom – and were denied or met with violent force at every juncture.
Our freedom was hard won. But won was the only way it could be. It was neither granted, nor bestowed, but retaken through bloody contest and struggle. In embracing the new totality of relationships between ourselves and our nearest neighbour, in moving on and evolving those relationships to new and more harmonious ones, let us not rewrite our history so that the narrative of the oppressor becomes the narrative of the oppressed.
Peace and truth are not mutually exclusive concepts. It is only by embracing both that we can truly move forward.
As the old saying goes: the Irish remember their history because the British keep forgetting it.