This April has been a compelling month for observing Anglo-Irish relations. The juxtaposition of Irish President Michael D Higgins heading Dublin’s 1916 Easter Rising commemoration ceremony on 20 April with his historic 4-day visit to the UK just weeks before, is striking. Marking the first ever visit of an Irish head of state to the United Kingdom, Mr Higgins’ trip inspires a reflection on the progress of Anglo-Irish relations from centuries of violence and struggle to today’s good will diplomacy.
The twentieth century was a watershed in Anglo-Irish relations after centuries of British colonial control of Ireland. British plantations of the sixteenth and seventeenth century propelled Ireland into centuries of cyclical sectarian violence along the British-Protestant and Irish-Catholic divide. Ireland’s struggle for “Home Rule” reached a climax with the 1916 Easter Rising and the subsequent war for independence, which resulted in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 partitioning Ireland into a free state in the south and Northern Ireland, which would remain in the UK.
The remnants of this historic conflict have characterized Anglo-Irish relations ever since and the mythologized grudges of the Irish people certainly still remain. Yet, the relationship between Britain and the Republic of Ireland is undoubtedly special and unlike any typical former colonial relationship. The interactions between the two states are deeply complex and, given their proximity, people, culture, and the English language have fluidly been exchanged as early as the twelfth century. Unfortunately, the substantial similarities and mutually beneficial goals often go unrecognised as the perception of Britain as a condescending, bullying big brother figure and Ireland as the defiant and unruly sibling still perpetuates in many minds.
Queen Elizabeth II sought to bring the two nations into a new era of relations with her pivotal visit to the Republic of Ireland in May 2011. Her visit marked the first time in one hundred years since a British monarch had set foot in what is now the Republic of Ireland. The last to visit had been by King George V in 1911, ten years before the Irish Free State was formed. The Queen’s visit was a turning point for Anglo-Irish relations: the image of the Queen laying a wreath in Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance for the Irish who had died fighting for independence did much to change the Irish people’s perception of Britain, promoting genuine change in the social disposition of the Irish towards the United Kingdom.
Thus by reciprocating the gesture, Mr Higgins’ visit signifies a true maturation of Anglo-Irish political relations. The Irish head of state was genuinely warmed by the reception he received to Britain claiming it “reflective of the true and deep friendship that now exists between Ireland and the United Kingdom”. With social relations vastly improved, so does the political and practical dimension of the relationship. Trade and tourism coordination is at its best with the Prime Minister, David Cameron, proclaiming Anglo-Irish relations “at an all-time high”. Ireland continues to facilitate a rich economic relationship with the UK, encouraging it to remain in the European Union to keep such economic relations close and strong. Additionally, the prime ministers have collaborated to consider allowing Asian visitors to travel freely between the UK and Ireland with a single tourist visa to boost advertising the countries as an alluring, single destination.
The ongoing improvement of relations between Britain and the Irish Republic inevitably has implications for the civil strife that continues to plague Northern Ireland. Despite the 1998 Belfast Peace Agreement, Catholic nationalist abhorrence of British rule remains even as great strides are made between Britain and the Irish state. This is not to diminish the progress that has been made within Northern Ireland in the twenty-first century, however. Along with President Higgins, former IRA commander Martin McGuiness took part in the visit to the UK in early April, attending a banquet hosted by the Queen, much to the dismay of staunch republicans still active in Northern Ireland. This too is a sign of very significant gains made in efforts to come to terms with the brutality and legacy of the Troubles that plagued Northern Ireland for thirty years. An IRA leader making the trip to the UK and socialising with the British government and royalty would have been unfathomable not so long ago.
The conflict in Northern Ireland remains a dark shadow on Anglo-Irish progress serving as a manifestation of a historic struggle that, despite Irish independence, remains unresolved in the hearts of many Northern Irish Catholics. While Ireland strives to move on as these symbolic visits demonstrate, some in Northern Ireland remain bitter.
The UK and Republic of Ireland shifting into a new age of a rich political and economic relationship is symbolic of healing from centuries of violence and bitterness from British control. While the residue of this history remains in Northern Ireland, the coming decade seems staged for a growing and good-natured rapport between the UK and Ireland.