Fergal Keane: Give thanks for two nations reconciled

What is being swept away, is the notion that any side, in the story of Ireland and Britain, has a monopoly on suffering

Share
Related Topics

Watching the faces of the guests at the top table in Dublin Castle on Wednesday night, I noticed the Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney. He was listening with rapt attention to the Queen as she spoke of reconciliation and a shared future. In a memorable affirmation of his identity Heaney once wrote:

Be advised, my passport's green

No glass of ours was ever raised to toast the Queen.

[Open Letter, 1983].

Heaney has never been an atavistic writer. His vision is consistently tolerant and generous. But when he wrote that poem in 1983, the notion of any Irishman from a nationalist background toasting an English monarch, let alone in Dublin, was unthinkable.

The Dublin and London governments were only then beginning to struggle towards détente after bitter years of mistrust.

The Northern Ireland political parties were indulging in their relentless cycle of mutual blame. And 87 people, British and Irish, Catholic and Protestant, were killed in the continuing violence.

Among them was 20-year old Private Mark Curtis from Grimsby, murdered by the IRA, and Thomas "Kidso" Reilly, an unarmed Catholic shot by a soldier in Ballymurphy. His last reported words were, "You won't call me an Irish bastard."

Curtis and Reilly are not only names from the list of three-and-a-half-thousand people who died in three decades of the Troubles.

They belong to a greater community of the lost, the hundreds of thousands of the dead, from Monaghan to Warrington, from stony famine graves in Kerry to the cemeteries of Belfast and Birmingham.

Yet the sacrifice of those centuries did not, as WB Yeats once wrote, "make a stone of the heart."

When Queen and President bowed their heads at the Garden of Remembrance, and stood in silence at the war memorial in Islandbridge, they showed humility and generosity that history might have suggested was impossible.

Their gesture emphasised the greatest principle of peacemaking: to reconcile you must acknowledge the pain of all.

What is being swept away in these memorable days is the notion that any side in the story of Ireland and Britain can claim a monopoly on suffering or use the past as an alibi.

The British establishment too often adopted an attitude of bewilderment with the Irish question, most memorably expressed by Churchill and his weary evocation of the "dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone" where the quarrel of the two tribes defied rational explanation.

It was as if the bloody business on the other side of the Irish Sea was down to some genetic predisposition to hatred on the part of the natives, Catholic and Protestant.

As Britain changed and modernised so too did the attitude to Ireland. It is in the figure of Margaret Thatcher that we can trace a real evolution in British thought and action. A target of IRA assassination she nonetheless grasped the necessity of creating a framework that could begin to meet nationalist aspirations, a recognition of an all-Ireland dimension to the Ulster problem. Together with Garret Fitzgerald, whose death occurred yesterday, Thatcher signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985.

For the first time the British state acknowledged and gave institutional expression to the right of Dublin to have a say in the affairs of Northern Ireland. The deal infuriated Unionists and was denounced as meaningless by militant nationalists.

But unlike Harold Wilson in 1974, Thatcher held her nerve in the face of Unionist strikes and demonstrations. It was a pivotal moment of political courage and propelled Unionists into intense self-questioning. Thatcher and Fitzgerald paved the way to Good Friday in 1998 and Dublin Castle this week.

For their part the overwhelming majority of Irish people have long ceased to see themselves as victims of the English. We have moved on. The old and understandable tendency of the colonised to define their identity in opposition to the conqueror has vanished. It is possible now to recognise, as the Irish President Mary McAleese made clear in her speech, the unique cultural gifts that have flowed from the mingling of British and Irish identities. In a time when the language of shared heritage and reconciliation is now commonplace, it is also worth recalling, those who spoke of such things when it was far from easy. I think of a historian like Professor Roy Foster of Oxford University who, more than any other academic, gave us a story of Ireland that overturned the dangerously simple morality tale that endured for decades in Ireland. His practical patriotism helped to open the minds of a new generation. I think too of a man like Bishop Edward Daly of Derry who witnessed the horror of Bloody Sunday but remained one of the most profoundly humane of men, one who denounced equally the injustices of the state and the bombings of the IRA.

Throughout the darkest of years there were people who kept alive the idea of a shared future. My friend, the poet Michael Longley, gave us verses to calm many an angry hour. Though living in the heart of Belfast and witnessing the violence at first hand he remained a civilised man, perhaps the greatest achievement of any who must live amid sectarian hatred. In Ceasefire, written to mark the IRA's 1994 statement, he reached into the Classical past and the myth of Troy to offer an example for Ireland:

I get down on my knees and do what must be done

And kiss Achilles' hand, the killer of my son.

The first royal visit to the Republic reminds us to salute the peacemakers, including those like Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and the late David Irvine, who made the journey from being men of war to men of peace. There are those who will continue to kill in the name of Ireland. But by standing together, and by speaking with such humility, Queen and President expressed the hope of an overwhelming majority. No gun or bomb can change that now. But by standing together, and by speaking with such humility, Queen and president expressed the hope for peace of the overwhelming majority of the people of these islands.

The writer is a BBC special correspondent. His series 'Story of Ireland' airs on BBC 2 next Tuesday at 7pm

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Data Insight Manager - Marketing

£32000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based o...

Business Analyst

£250 - £350 per day: Orgtel: Business Analyst, Bristol, Banking, Business Obje...

Internal Communications Advisor - SW London

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Communications Advisor - SW...

Data Insight Manager

£40000 - £43000 Per Annum plus company bonus: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A doctor injects a patient with Botox at a cosmetic treatment center  

Why do women opt for cosmetic surgery when there is such beauty in age?

Howard Jacobson
James Foley was captured in November 2012 by Isis militants  

Voices in Danger: Syria is the most dangerous country in the world for journalists

Anne Mortensen
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape