Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 3 September 2014

Queen has given us right to believe in parity of esteem

Royal Appeal: the Queen is warmly recieved in Dublin, but her visit left protester Breandan Mac Cionnaith cold

The Queen has been and gone and left this island with some searching questions about itself. When all is said and done, what next?

Will her visit really change attitudes and minds? Or will we all nod in agreement and continue to pay lip-service to the aspirations of goodwill in her speech and that of President Mary McAleese?

Let's cut our way through all the media hype and glowing words. Let's be honest with ourselves, north and south, unionist and nationalist alike, and ask what difference the Royal visit will really make.

Firstly, it has done not a whit of harm and a great deal of good. If anyone doubts the value of the monarchy, they should view a video of what an 85-year-old lady and her 89-year-old husband did on behalf of their country over four days of interminable handshakes and at no small risk to their lives and limbs.

That they came and left without harm is, in itself, something for which we should all be thankful.

It was not the Queen, but a totally outnumbered band of little Irelanders - call them 'dissidents' if you will - who cost the Republic's hard-pressed economy an unnecessary €30m and required 6,000 gardai and 2,000 soldiers to guard her against their ridiculously out-dated protests and threats.

Perhaps the bill should be sent to the likes of the one and only Breandan Mac Cionnaith, he of Drumcree fame, but now reincarnated on the streets of Dublin as a protester.

The Queen and the president did not quite put it in these words, but the united message to Breandan Mac Cionnaith and his ilk must be 'Wise up, man. Get a life'.

So what of the unionists who travelled down to Dublin at the president's invitation? What might they have got out of the Royal visit?

I'm not sure if everyone will be comfortable with the answer. On the basis that there is no such thing as a free state banquet, unionists now face more pressure to recognise the Irish dimension in Northern Ireland in a way they have been reluctant to do to date.

If the Queen can go to Croke Park, if her husband can proudly accept a hurley, then so-called 'pluralist unionism' may need to do a lot more than accepting the odd token Catholic into the ranks. If the Queen can enter the citadel of the GAA, can the public representatives of unionism continue to find excuses to stay away?

If the Queen can applaud young Irish dancers and music, can our state schools continue to ignore such culture? Of course, it's not all one-way traffic. If the Dublin government can belatedly recognise 40,000 Irishmen who died fighting for Britain, then surely its ambassador in London could turn up at the Cenotaph in Whitehall on Remembrance Sunday?

The GAA president at Croke Park made a magnificently crafted speech of welcome to the Queen, but what of the Northern Ireland counties who boycotted this momentous occasion?

How is their action conducive to making the GAA "more appealing to unionists" - not my words, but their president's?

Southern public opinion for the Queen's visit forced Gerry Adams to row back and adopt a new, more conciliatory view with a positive acknowledgement of her spell-binding Dublin Castle speech.

The 'war' is well and truly over, but if unionists are challenged to recognise the Irish dimension, then so, too, are republicans to stop harping on about the past and accept Britain as a friendly neighbour, not an enemy.

Seamus Mallon described rightly the two speeches at Dublin Castle as a "template" for future relations.

For example, the Irish president said emphatically that Northern Ireland was part of the UK unless a majority voted otherwise, but the constitutional guarantee comes with a health warning which some unionists conveniently forget.

The more the south snuggles up to Britain, the more unionists will be expected to recognise the importance of being Irish.

Good political relationships are set by example.

The Queen and the president have played a blinder in that regard. Now the groundwork must be shouldered by Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness. The eloquent words of last week's historic events need to be translated into action on the ground.

The Crown and the Shamrock? The Orange and the Green?

Total parity of esteem in Northern Ireland? That remains no mean challenge for all of us.

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