Belfast Telegraph

No one's Irishness is diluted by an interest in Harry and Meghan's wedding

When Sinn Fein are as happy at Windsor Castle as at an ard fheis, there's no reason why nationalists shouldn't sit back and enjoy the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, writes Tom Kelly

As I start to write this column about the forthcoming royal wedding, I am looking at a little ceramic plaque made for me at a local playgroup by two talented children of friends in May 2006. It's got loads of colours - white, green, orange, blue and red. Its inscription, hand-painted with balloons, simply says: "Congratulations Tom OBE - Dervila xo and John ox." It's been in the same place in my home since it was given to me. Which is more than can be said for the actual OBE, which I seem to have temporarily misplaced.

Certainly, I remember giving away my miniature medal as a gift to a former colleague, who now works for one of the major political parties in the Republic. Back in 2006, taking an OBE was big news for someone from my background. Naturally, it attracted criticism from the usual suspects. I wasn't unduly fazed by it. As I said at the time, I had not murdered anyone, but I did want to show, particularly to the unionist community, that I was comfortable in my own identity.

As Seamus Heaney said: "My passport was green. No glass of ours was ever raised to toast the Queen". Well, it wouldn't have been. I grew up in Newry. Unlike Heaney, who confessed to holding a British passport before an Irish one, I only ever held an Irish passport until recently (but it's doubtful, with Brexit, that I will be renewing my British one).

John Hewitt got it right: "I am an Ulsterman, Irishman, British and European". Like Heaney, despite the public rhetoric, I had also met the Queen twice before. Both times connected to when Newry received city status in 2002.

The decision taken to seek city status meant that those of us in civic society, albeit in a mainly nationalist district, had to make a conscious effort to be truly inclusive with unionist residents, many of whom felt alienated by the local majority community.

We were successful in our outreach and it may surprise some readers to know that we hosted a Queen's Jubilee Exhibition in Newry as part of that outreach. My first drink to celebrate city status was taken with Mrs Nummy, a publican and prominent member of the local unionist community, in what was then the Crown Bar.

Much has changed since 2006. Nowadays, Sinn Fein leaders are as comfortable in Windsor Castle as at an ard fheis, especially since the Queen managed a "cupla focail as gaeilge" and Prince Philip handled a "caman agus sliotar" while in Dublin.

Reciprocal state visits followed by run-of-the-mill trips by Prince Charles, Camilla and second-tier royals have become commonplace. Even the late, lamented Seamus Heaney admitted that he had been toasting the Queen quite a few times over the years.

So, too, the late Martin McGuinness, even with the camera on him, never seemed uncomfortable as he chatted away merrily to the Queen.

One suspects Her Majesty found him a lot more interesting than most of the people she has to meet.

So, it's difficult to understand why anyone would get exercised enough to intimidate a Donegal hotelier to cancel a planned royal afternoon tea experience on the wedding day of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

These buck eejits represent no one. They certainly are not republicans; true republicans believe in freedom of expression and association.

A poll suggests over a third of people living in the Republic will tune in to the royal wedding. I suspect the number will be higher. Royal is the new celebrity and an American actress will attract more than the usual cabal of royal fans.

Those living in nationalist communities in Northern Ireland are unlikely to be putting the bunting up, or rushing to buy Mr Kipling cakes with the happy couple's image, but they are no less immune to what seems like an actual true romance.

After all, we Irish cherish an auld romance, whether it be from our Celtic culture, theatre, or politics.

Love has been at the heart of many an Irish fable or event - whether its legends of Grainne and Diarmuid, or Tristan and Iseult, Parnell and Kitty O'Shea, or Oscar Wilde and Lord Douglas, or WB Yeats and Maud Gonne, or Michael Collins and Kitty Kiernan and, last but not least, Joseph Mary Plunkett and Grace Gifford, who was immortalised in the song Grace.

So, it's highly unlikely that some biblical-like green mist will descend on the homes of nationalists who opt to catch a glimpse of Britain's most famous soap stars - the royals.

Notwithstanding the Mexican stand-off between unionist and republican leaders, it's hard to believe that the most ardent of republican supporters wouldn't offer a young couple every happiness at the start of their married life.

Irishness is not diluted by taking an interest in the affairs of our nearest neighbours; it certainly isn't diminished by showing generosity, or respect, for a tradition, even if it's not perceived as being a shared tradition.

Only a few weeks ago, Prince Harry and his fiancee, Meghan Markle, met with literally thousands of our young people at a shared-space event organised by Co-operation Ireland.

The welcome they got was phenomenal.

Co-operation Ireland is chaired by an Englishman of Irish descent, Christopher Moran, and it has board members as diverse as Peter Robinson and John Bruton, along with other unionists and republicans.

Last month, the Irish embassy in London worked closely with Co-operation Ireland, the DUP members of parliament and South Armagh-born, now British Labour MP Conor McGinn to mark the centenary of the death of Irish nationalist and parliamentarian John Redmond at Westminster.

Nationalists won't be agitated about the royal wedding.

It's an occasion that's more about celebrity than identity.

Northern Ireland is a changed place.

There's an Irish proverb: "An lamb a bheir 's i a gheibh!", which seems appropriate for a wedding, which, when translated, means, "The hand that gives is the hand that gets".

I suspect Martin McGuinness understood that when he went to meet with the Queen and it's that type of generosity which has transformed some aspects of our society for the better and for ever.

Belfast Telegraph

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