Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Queen is welcome ... but not what she stands for

The British monarchy's constitution is sectarian and in need of reform, but the Queen can't take personal responsibility for the wrongs of the past, writes Charles Lysaght

Picture dated 1935 showing Princess Elizabeth sitting in the studio of Hungarian sculptor Sigismund de Strobl (background).

Although a recent Sunday Independent poll recorded a majority of 80% of people in the Republic in favour tomorrow's visit of Queen Elizabeth, I sense unease about the event even among those who are not opposed to it. Its success cannot be taken for granted.

As a person who deplores Anglophobia as demeaning to ourselves and who desires close friendly relations between the Republic of Ireland and Britain, I have long had misgivings about Queen Elizabeth paying a State visit to the Republic. It is a risky departure from the policy of keeping relations between the two countries low key, which has served everyone well since independence.

Irish presidents have paid many visits to Britain, but have never been accorded the honour of a State visit. On two occasions, as part of a private visit, they have called on Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace - President Robinson was given tea while President McAleese had lunch.

It would surely have been more appropriate to have reciprocated the treatment the presidents received in Britain by facilitating a private visit to the Republic by the Queen including, of course, a courtesy call on the President at Aras an Uachtarain. I am sure that the Queen would enjoy a race meeting and a visit to the world famous stud at Coolmore much more than many of the starchy events that are part and parcel of a State visit.

If Queen Elizabeth had come on a private visit, the emphasis would be on her as a person and she would be welcomed for the estimable individual she is. When she comes on a State visit, she comes as the representative of an institution and a nation with which many Irish people still have issues.

Republicans of various hues have made their objections known and some threaten to create disturbances that have potential to spoil the visit. Unreasonable though they can be, they may have a point when they say that the visit is premature. What we have, at present, is an amicable modus vivendi, not a final resolution of the historic differences between Britain and Ireland. A State visit should have been held in reserve to mark that final resolution.

Queen Elizabeth is in the unhappy position of being the living embodiment of a monarchy whose constitution is, in at least one respect, offensively sectarian. Its basic charter, the Act of Settlement 1701, precludes the marriage to a papist of the sovereign. Singling out Catholics from all other religions, it has been invoked in recent years to exclude two living members of the Royal family from the line of succession.

It is a relic - perhaps the last relic - of a penal code that accorded an inferior status to Catholic subjects, most of whom were Irish, and may explain why the Catholic Irish, unlike the Presbyterian Scots, were never able to take the British monarchy to their hearts.

All this is not the fault of Queen Elizabeth, who has gone out of her way to be friendly to Catholics. I recall a Christmas message 20 years ago when she picked out a meeting with an Irish missionary nun in South Africa as one of the highlights of her year. It is lamentable that British governments have not removed this blot on the monarchy. A move to do so was talked down in Parliament six years ago.

I cannot understand why the official church is so silent on the issue. Perhaps they feel inhibited by their own bigoted rules in relation to mixed religious marriages. It remains a slur on the Catholic people, most of whom abhor those rules. In this era of political correctness, the legislation banning the marriage of the sovereign to a Catholic would not be tolerated if it applied to other racial or religious groups.

It would be a winning gesture on the part of the British government conducive to the success of the Royal visit to announce this week its intention to repeal this discriminatory provision in the Act of Settlement.

On the part of people in the Republic, bearing in mind the capacity of enthusiasm in this context to provoke resentment, they should aim at a welcome that is warm rather than effusive. Although it is a State visit, they should focus on Queen Elizabeth as an individual.

It would be best if the speeches were short and personal rather than dissertations crafted by politicians or bureaucrats ranging over the spectrum of British-Irish relations - actions, such as the visit to Croke Park, speak more eloquently than words. Above all, the Queen should not be expected to apologise for episodes in the past for which she has no personal responsibility.

It would be consistent with this personal approach to acknowledge those individuals within the British royal family who have been friendly to Ireland, including Prince Philip's uncle Lord Mountbatten.

We have never done sufficient honour to the Queen's grandfather George V for all he did to help to secure peace in Ireland in the early decades of the 20th century and who was such a champion of the first Free State government. This is an opportunity to put that right.

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