The state visit of the President of Ireland has been a cause for satisfaction in some British quarters. The Financial Times described it as “an event laden with symmetry and symbolism”. Certainly the British are often better at putting on a show than they are at being serious about democracy.
The future of Northern Ireland was almost entirely airbrushed out. The still unresolved matter of the involvement of Her Majesty’s Government in the murder of Patrick Finucane was politely omitted from the conversation. The disorders on the streets of Belfast, remembered from last year and expected again this year, were played down.
The suggestion that a member of the Windsor clan should represent the UK at the centenary of the Easter Rising in 2016 is more controversial. Queen Windsor may say that “With the benefit of historical hindsight, we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all.” But a state that relies on hindsight to know right from wrong is a danger to its people and to its neighbours
The vicious suppression of Irish republicans by the forces of the Crown she still wears is not so easily excused. And that Crown still represents that which is the antithesis of the principles for which Irish republicans fought and died. No Crown belongs at a commemoration of republicanism. Nor should the manipulation of celebrity status that the Windsors now use to prolong their privileges be allowed to trivialise a deeply serious and solemn occasion.
It is understandable that state representatives must sometimes stifle their own sense of decency and shake hands with or raise a glass to another state representative of whom they disapprove. And the Financial Times may be right that “ it is no small thing to hold together the threads of such different royalist and republican narratives”. But British republicans must feel more than regret that the representatives of republican Ireland are obliged to salute the British enemies of republicanism, not its friends. We admire those who refuse to bow to monarchs and must feel sorrowful when a republican feels obliged to acknowledge a queen as legitimate.
One message seemed to be that a republic and a monarchy can get on well together, no matter how cruel the relationship was in the past. More than that, there was an implication that a monarchy and republic are entitled to an equality of esteem.
But for republicans it is the asymmetry between the kingdom and the republic that stands out. Some comparisons are worthwhile.
The President of Ireland was chosen by the people of that country. Queen Windsor inherited her job. The people had no say.
The President of Ireland has an annual salary of £270,000. When he was elected he asked that this be reduced to £207,000. Queen Windsor is paid £13m annually from the Duchy of Lancaster. Her son takes £19m annually from the Duchy of Cornwall. In other words they have for hundreds of years picked the pockets of the British people in the name of feudal privilege and still do so without shame.
The Present of Ireland holds office for a maximum of 14 years, after which the fresh air of change must blow. The monarch holds office until death or abdication. The stale air suffocates.
The powers of the President of Ireland are set out for all to see in a written constitution. Queen Windsor and her family exercise their powers under an unwritten constitution. Until recently most citizens were unaware that this pretend constitution allows her and her family to veto legislation they they consider not in their interests.
The President of Ireland had achieved distinction before being chosen as his country’s head of state. He is a poet, politician, sociologist, author and broadcaster. Queen Windsor has no known talent apart from that of avoiding controversy. It is hard to imagine such a person being chosen by the people.
Any citizen of Ireland may become President. Only members of the Windsor clan may become monarch.
The President of Ireland can with some claim to speak for the Irish people and to be independent of the government. Windsor speaks merely for the government and certainly not for those that her monarchy excludes from public office.
In other words, the presidency of Ireland is an honourable office. The President of Ireland to all appearances is an honourable man worthy of the office. The same is not true of monarchy or of Windsor.
So we must look forward to the day when Britain follows Ireland and the monarchists and apologists for monarchy may say that with “historical hindsight” they see that they were wrong.