Leading Article: A dynamic nation that is a blueprint for modern Britain

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The Independent Culture
THERE IS one European nation which, more than any other, provides a model for Tony Blair's ambition to re-brand Britain as a modernised "young country". It is a nation which has shaken off the burden of its obsession with history, its bitterness towards its neighbour and the obscurantism of its conservative constitution and established church. It is a country which now has a dynamic economy and a self-confident outlook on the world.

That country is the Republic of Ireland, and Mr Blair's speech to the Irish parliament yesterday, the first by a British prime minister, was a symbol of the new relationship between the two parts of what was once a single nation. It has been true for some time, although it takes an event like this to jolt perceptions, that the British have ceased to look down on the Irish, and that the Irish have ceased to feel a sense of inferiority in relation to their former oppressors.

The Republic's remake over the past 20 years has been more radical than anything Mr Blair now proposes for Britain. Eamon de Valera, fighter for Irish independence and author of the culturally nationalistic, Roman Catholic, inward-looking 1937 constitution, was still Irish president as recently as 1973. He famously thought of Irish women as homemakers and "comely maidens dancing at crossroads". Now, two of them have sat in his presidential office. Yes, the Roman Catholic Church still has privileged status in the Irish constitution, and liberal British opinion has been condescending about the difficulty of persuading the Irish electorate to endorse modernisation of the law on abortion and divorce in referendums. But at least the Republic has a written constitution which can be amended democratically, and despite all the hoo-ha about Mr Blair's purge of the hereditary peerage, the Church of England's bishops are still to be allowed to legislate for all faiths and none.

And, for all the prejudice about the Republic as a socially conservative, illiberal society, a telling detail yesterday was the fact that Mr Blair's speech was watched from the public gallery by the Irish prime minister's current partner, Celia Larkin. It would be interesting to see how the British system of organised hypocrisy would deal with a separated prime minister's new companion.

Bertie Ahern's hint that the Republic might rejoin the Commonwealth shows how the Irish are now moving on from the past. And the old relationship between backward and advanced parts of the British Isles could be reversed when the Republic leads the way into the euro. By 2002, when euro notes and coins are introduced, Ireland could be part of a dominant economic bloc encircling the UK.

We look forward to Mr Ahern then addressing a joint session of the UK parliament, explaining how Britain, too, could become a successful, modern European nation.