Symbolic gestures are all well and good, as is symbolic symbolism in general, but mind out lest those interpreting the symbols invest them with some significances, while obscuring others, writes Hugh Green

The visit of the head of state of the United Kingdom to the not northern part of the land mass of the island of Ireland has been treated as an extremely significant, symbolic and historic event.

I have no interest in adding to the clamour of people telling you precisely why the visit merits such a description. But I have spent quite a large amount of time inhabiting the northern part of the land mass of the island of Ireland, and have therefore spent quite a large amount of time exchanging pieces of metal and paper with the image of the head of the head of state in question on it, and therefore I am as well versed as any in what the monarch symbolises. So let me point out a couple of things.

The first is that no symbolism is intended with my use of a capital Q. I see no reason why we cannot talk about Queen Elizabeth when there is no controversy when it comes to capitalising King Leopold of Belgium. The second is that whatever the UK head of state said, whether in English or in Irish, and whatever way she moved her person around this part of the island of ireland, whether sashaying, scuttling or gliding regally, or whether on four wheels - none of these things is the best starting point for talking about the relations between Britain and Ireland.

In fact, I’m inclined to start in that stereotypically Irish way of embarking on something, by remarking that if I wanted to understand what the character of the relationship between the two states is, and what the consequences are for its citizens, subjects, and humans within its territory classified by other means, I wouldn't be starting from here. But we are where we are.

Who decides what is symbolically important? I remember a moment, in the time between the first IRA ceasefire and the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, when my friends would produce five pound notes from their pocket and fold them in such a way so as to produce a composite image of George Stephenson and Queen Elizabeth II that looked a lot - well, a bit - like Martin McGuinness.

Perhaps this was an important symbolic moment, that told us all something about our shared history and provided an augury of our future. Or it would have been, if the newspapers and TV stations had reported on it. Perhaps it is now symbolically important, because I am talking about it.

I am not denying that Queen Elizabeth taking a 45 in Croke Park, or whatever it is she did there, is not symbolic; of course it is, and it is hard to imagine how it could not be so. It may also very well be an important statement, telling onlookers, through those interpreting the symbolism, that the relations between Ireland and Britain have changed. But does any of this symbolism tell us how they have changed, in any way that was not already entirely obvious?

The more sceptical among those assessing the reactions to the fact that the Queen spoke a few words of Irish at the reception may be inclined to include that what we had witnessed was a very well-executed instance of throwing the natives a bone. At the same time, because she spoke Irish, some might say it was an important statement, to the monarchist population of the north of this island’s land mass, that the Irish language was neither threatening nor beneath them.

Perhaps. But let's not forget that the battle cry of the Royal Irish Regiment, currently engaged in an imperial war in Afghanistan, and recently engaged in an imperial war in Iraq, is ‘Faugh A Ballagh’ (the more seasoned royal watchers among us may be wondering whether the Queen had her cúpla focal transliterated for her). It is not as if the British state has declined use of Irish in the past. It was not uncommon, pre-Good Friday Agreement, for officers of the Royal Irish Rangers to speak Irish to locals in Northern border areas in order to win hearts and minds. What is really worth gasping ‘wow’ at is that this history has been so conveniently forgotten.

Also forgotten, for the most part, are many murky incidents arising from the activities of the British state in the north of Ireland. Part of this can be put down to the fact that the southern media class was always oblivious to any concrete relation between loyalist paramilitary atrocities and the character of the British state. From its standpoint, paramilitary violence has long been considered the product of a congenital defect, whether a deficiency of grey matter, or of knuckles situated too close to the ground. It is standard practice to psychopathologize paramilitary violence in terms of mere sectarian attitudes, as though hatred and prejudice, and not social conditions arising from the character of the state, were its primary cause.

It would be the height of immaturity, therefore, at this late stage, to discuss Northern Ireland in terms of a state that was the product, in the beginning, of a dominant property-owning class forming a massive armed militia to protect itself from local government by poorer people of a different religion. These days, things have moved on, and just as maturity demands that, in the presence of the British monarch, Northern Ireland’s past should be left behind, so too should any ideas we might have about owning classes wreaking havoc in Ireland. All that is at stake, between North and South, East and West, is the flourishing of friendships, the building of bridges, the strengthening of ties, and so on.

During the time of the monarch’s visit, the victim of paramilitary violence most widely discussed on airwaves and in print was Louis Mountbatten. It was considered a mark of the monarch’s generosity of spirit that she had bowed her head at the Garden of Remembrance, despite the fact that the Provisional IRA had killed Mountbatten in a bomb in Sligo in 1979.

There is nothing wrong with acknowledging deep personal pain and trauma inflicted as a result of this action. What is remarkable, however, is that in a country that purports to be a republic, and in light of the triumphant claims of ‘partnership’ and ‘equality’ that appeared in reports of the Queen’s visit, the monarch’s personal pain was given far greater acknowledgement than has ever been given to the pain, suffering and death inflicted on many people living on this island by agents of the British state.

Among these people are the families of the victims of the Dublin-Monaghan bombings. We should not hold our breaths to hear sustained commentary on what is symbolised by the British government refusing to release any further documents. But there are other victims too, not only of the Glenanne gang – a band of loyalist paramilitaries and security force members with links to a military base in Castledillon, Armagh - which is widely believed to have carried out the bombings, but victims of people like Billy Wright, whose families suspect state collusion in the deaths of their loved ones. Their demands are habitually assumed to require some sort of elaborate state choreography, where justice is forever delayed because of some sort of quid pro quo process with the republican movement, for further investigation to take place. In some cases, further investigation is impossible because of the destruction, by police, of potential evidence. There is a lack of expertise, alas, when it comes to interpreting the symbolism involved, in light of this, in inviting UDA and UVF members to ceremonies with the Queen in Dublin whilst the pain of these people is officially ignored.

Nor, for that matter, should we expect rigorous questioning of what more opaque forms of symbolism are supposed to tell us about relations between the states of these islands, and the effect it will have on people’s lives. But it is worth posing the question, at least, as to what, precisely, in this era of ‘new economic challenges’, as the Queen’s speech put it, is symbolised by the new £20m MI5 headquarters in Dundonald, Belfast. We are mostly at a loss for anything that goes beyond official declarations of an intent to safeguard against ‘terror’. However, Bernard Porter, writing in the London Review of Books, offers a hint:

One of (MI5’s) concerns over the IRA’s bombing campaign in the City of London in the 1990s was that it ‘threatened to put at risk its survival as Europe’s main financial capital’; and I happen to know that ‘the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism’ is still on MI5’s list of potential targets to be safeguarded against subversion, though I’m not at liberty to reveal my source (the Chatham House Rule, don’t you know), which of course makes my evidence unreliable.

Protecting the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism and safeguarding financial institutions: one would have to admit that successive Irish governments have been doing a pretty solid job of this, even as they venerate Ireland’s revolutionary past at their commemorative ceremonies. But if this is all the struggle for Irish freedom was about, is it any wonder, in this era of ‘new economic challenges’, that the Queen bowed her head?


Image top: modified version of original by MikeWu.