Queen Elizabeth II’s Complex Relationship With Ireland

Like many of Britain’s former colonies, Ireland has had a complicated relationship with both Britain and its monarchy, one uniquely shaped by a geographical proximity that created intimate but not necessarily friendly ties both economically and culturally.

The death of Queen Elizabeth II raised much discussion about the British monarchy’s relationship with its former colonies. Republic of Ireland was an independent country that gained independence in 1921. The response from the Republic of Ireland was respectful but not overwhelming, consistent with its complex past.

Before finally becoming independent, Ireland had to endure eight centuries worth of military and political intervention from its neighbour. But Queen Elizabeth (and now King Charles III) remained head of state in the six counties that make up Northern Ireland, which is still part of the U.K.— and a point of friction for 70 years. During the violent period of the late 1960s to late 1990s known as The Troubles, more than 3,700 people lost their lives, including the uncle of the Queen’s husband: Lord Louis Mountbatten, an icon of British imperialism, was killed in 1979 by a Irish Republic Army bomb.

Yet upon the Queen’s death, Irish politicians both North and South and on either side of the political divide issued statements of condolence, tribute and praise, testament to the important role she played in repairing relations between Britain and Ireland.

The First Colony

Not only was Ireland Britain’s nearest colony, it was also its first. The Normans conquered the island in 1169. It remained a colony until 1640s, when it was granted independence. The island served as a testing ground for new methods and policies, such as the promotion and preservation of English culture, which were then transferred to other areas of the British Empire.

This was also a prime example of resistance. The British army and monarchy were seen as enemies by generations of Irish nationalists. The IRA described the assassination of Mountbatten as a “discriminate act to bring the attention of the English people the continuing occupation of our country.” While the Queen a number of times visited Northern Ireland – where many in the Protestant majority identify as British – when it came to the Republic of Ireland there “effectively wasn’t a relationship after Irish Independence until the mid-1990s,” says Marie Coleman, Professor of Twentieth Century Irish History at Queen’s University in Belfast.

The monarchy was “not popular with a majority of the Irish population,” says Dan Mulhall, former Irish Ambassador to the U.K. and current Irish studies professor at New York University. “There were obviously traumatic events during the 19th century and then in the 20th century.”

The queen and peace

The Queen hosted Mary Robinson, then the President of Ireland, to Buckingham Palace in 1993 for tea. This was the first formal meeting of the heads of states of Britain and Ireland. It also marked the beginning of a gradual process to improve relations in the 1990s. In 1995, the Prince of Wales (now King Charles III), visited Dublin.

The peace process leading to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement was in full swing. Elizabeth II’s relationship with Mary McAleese (the next President of Ireland) helped to open the door for the 2011 first British monarch visit to Ireland. “There hadn’t been an official visit by the British monarchy in 400 years,” says Mulhall. The visit in 2011 would prove to be “a turning point in relations,” he adds.

“It was a recognition that both the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland treated each other as equal nations which had much in common with each other,” says Coleman.

The Queen was clearly aware of the importance symbolism played in improving relations between both countries. There was also a lot of symbolicism. The first stop was to lay a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin, which is dedicated to the memory of those who died “in the cause of Irish Freedom” – in other words, those who fought for Irish independence against Britain. “Yet she went there and she bowed her head,” says Mulhall, ”recognizing the contribution those people had made to the evolution of modern Ireland.”

Learn More: Queen Elizabeth’s Passing Could Push Some Countries to Alter Their Ties to the British Monarchy

And though the Queen’s visit drew protests and critics in the Republic of Ireland, in Northern Ireland, and in the U.K, “she understood the power of images and symbolism and did a number of things which clearly won people over and turned the visit into a great success,” says Mulhall.

At a state banquet in Dublin Castle, Queen Elizabeth began her speech with a greeting in the Irish language—”a uachtaran agus a chairde” [President and friends]. In her speech, she acknowledged both the difficulties and history between them. “Of course, the relationship has not always been straightforward; nor has the record over the centuries been entirely benign,” she said. “It is a sad and regrettable reality that through history our islands have experienced more than their fair share of heartache, turbulence and loss.”

This visit however led to better relations. One year later on a trip to Northern Ireland there was an even greater mark of progress. In Belfast’s Lyric Theater, Queen Elizabeth met Martin McGuinness (Sinn Fein), the deputy first minister for Northern Ireland. Even though the handshake lasted four seconds it was very significant considering McGuinness, a former IRA commander, was a top paramilitary officer at the time of Lord Mountbatten’s assassination.

“It was obviously significant for that reason,” says Coleman. Though she adds it also was significant “for Irish Republicanism that McGuinness was prepared to shake the hand of a British monarch whose right to rule over any part of Ireland is not accepted by the party of which he was a leading figure at the time.”

Not a wake, but a service

Upon news of the Queen’s Sept. 8 death, two Irish soldiers lowered the Irish flag to half mast at government buildings in Dublin as a mark of respect.

However, mourning wasn’t the right way to go. There was much discussion via Twitter about the impact of the monarchy in Ireland and the colonial legacy. The issue of the long painful history of colonization and a video of Irish soccer fans singing “Lizzie is in a box” went viral, the club later issuing a statement condemning the chant.

Many political leaders, including Sinn Fein members, offered their condolences and praised her role in improving relations between the countries. “Queen Elizabeth’s Visit was pivotal in laying a firm basis for an authentic and ethical understanding between our countries,” said Irish President Michael D Higgins. “Her moving words and gestures of respect were deeply appreciated and admired by the people of Ireland and set out a new, forward looking relationship between our nations – one of respect, close partnership and sincere friendship.”

Taoiseach [Prime Minister] Micheal Martin said: “The Queen’s passing is indeed the end of an era. Her State Visit to Ireland in 2011 marked a crucial step in the normalization of relations with our nearest neighbor.”

The First Minister of Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein politician Michelle O’Neill acknowledged the Queen’s “significant contribution.” “Throughout the peace process she led by example in building relationships with those of us who are Irish, and who share a different political allegiance and aspirations to herself and her Government,” she said.

With a host of issues, including disputes over trade deals, Brexit has put pressure on the relationship between Ireland. “The monarchy might be one conduit to try to repair this,” says Mulhall.

Learn More: Queen Elizabeth II has died. Here’s How Prince Charles Became King

Indeed, in his first speech during a visit to Northern Ireland, the future King Charles promised to “seek the welfare of all inhabitants” of Northern Ireland and vowed to follow “the shining example” of his mother given her role in improving relations and reconciliation.

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