By Tomás McGoldrick, Ireland Correspondent
Last week saw the first state visit by an Irish President to Britain.
For the first time since Ireland gained its independence in 1922 the relationship between the two countries is seen as strong enough for Michael D. Higgins to be able to visit his nearest neighbour in what Taoiseach Enda Kenny called ‘a golden age’ for Anglo Irish relations.
There are close cultural and family links between the two countries. Britain has been the destination of choice for most Irish emigrants down the centuries, with about eight million people claiming Irish descent in the UK as well as roughly two million Irish citizens currently living in the country. However, the legacy of 800 years of conflict, repression and rebellion has strained the relationship over the years.
President Higgins’s visit marks the next step in the improving relationship between the two states after the Queen’s visit to Ireland in 2011. It is safe to say that relations have now normalised and will soon become as uncontroversial as between any other two EU countries.
The outstanding issue of Northern Ireland is now seen by both London and Dublin as being resolved, with the signing of the Good Friday agreement in 1998 and the assembly at Stormont having managed to survive since 2007 without anyone pulling the plug.
The legacy issues of the past, from the flags to the parades, have been left up to the local parties to resolve and both governments now take a very hands off approach to the north. As long as there is an acceptable level of violence which is confined to Northern Ireland and no threat to Britain or the rest of Ireland then this approach will continue.
The prime example of the new dispensation is the fact that Martin McGuinness attended the state banquet hosted by the Queen. This has attracted as much attention as President Higgins’s visit, and it’s not hard to see why. For many Irish nationalists and republicans to don a white tie and tails and sit down for dinner with the commander-in-chief of the British army and the rest of the Establishment would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
Sinn Féin misjudged their reaction to the Queen’s visit to Ireland in 2011. By refusing to attend any events during her visit they showed themselves to be out of step with the majority of Irish opinion. The lesson has been learnt which is why McGuinness has been allowed to attend by the Dublin-based leadership. The party’s focus is now on gaining votes in the south, and by attending the banquet Sinn Féin can portray themselves as being a reasonable, moderate party to the southern electorate. In effect they want to show that they have completed the same journey from armed struggle to constitutionalism as Fianna Fáil did in 1926. The aim is to get into government in both jurisdictions in Ireland as a further stepping stone to Irish unity.
They feel confident enough in their position in the north to be able to do this, as the largest nationalist party there they can see that there is little real risk in making what is an historic compromise for republicans. Those republicans who are opposed to Sinn Féin pose no significant electoral threat.
The dissident republican groups still engaged in violence have already discounted McGuinness as a sell-out and a traitor, the sight of him hob-nobbing with the great and the good of the British state and toasting the Queen only confirms their opinions. They wouldn’t have to take Norman Tebbit’s advice about shooting McGuinness in the back, he has already received numerous death threats.
The state visit of President Michael D. Higgins this week does represent a sea-change in the relationship between Ireland and Britain, and those who hail it as historic are correct. This process of normalisation has only been able to happen because both governments see that their last dispute over the constitutional status of Northern Ireland is essentially being resolved.
The attendance of an ex-IRA commander like Martin McGuinness at Windsor Castle is testament to how far the north of Ireland has travelled, as President Higgins said, “the road of a lasting and creative reconciliation”. The question remains whether this reconciliation will be solely between the two communities in Northern Ireland, or between the two parts of Ireland as well.