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. In the Republic of Ireland, which gained its independence in 1921, the response was respectful and somewhat muted, consistent with complex history.
Ireland endured eight centuries of political and military intervention by its neighbor before finally gaining its independence. 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. Conquered by the Normans in 1169, the island remained (apart from a brief decade of independence in the 1640s) a colony for over 700 years. It provided something of a test site for methods of governing, policies and practices, including the promotion of English culture and language, that were later transferred to other parts of the British Empire.
It also proved an early example of resistance. Generations of Irish nationalists viewed the British monarchy and army alike as the enemy. 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 the peace
In 1993, the Queen invited then-President of Ireland Mary Robinson to Buckingham Palace for tea. It was the first official meeting between the heads of state of Ireland and Britain and marked the start of a slow process of improving relations during the 1990s, after the IRA announced a ceasefire, and its political branch, Sinn Fein, embraced negotiations. In 1995 the Prince of Wales (now King Charles III) visited Dublin.
As the peace process that led to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement unfolded, the relationship that Elizabeth II built with the next President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, helped pave the way for the first visit by a British monarch to the Republic of Ireland, in 2011. “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.
There was a huge amount of symbolism during the visit, and the Queen clearly grasped its critical role in improving relations between the countries. 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.”
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]. The speech acknowledged the history and difficulties between the two countries. “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.”
That visit, however, paved the way for better relations and a year later, on a visit to Northern Ireland, there was another even more remarkable mark of progress. At the Lyric Theater in Belfast, the Queen shook hands with Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein, the then Northern Ireland deputy first minister. The handshake lasted just four seconds but was hugely significant given that McGuinness was a former IRA commander and had held a senior role in the paramilitary organization at the time of the assassination of Lord Mountbatten.
“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.”
A service, not a wake
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.
But mourning was not the order of the day. Twitter in Ireland was alive with discussion on the role the monarchy had played in Ireland, and its colonial legacy. Many raised 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.
Her death brought respectful condolences from political figures, including members of Sinn Fein, who commended the role she played in bettering relations between the two 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.
Since Brexit, the overall relationship between Ireland and the U.K. have been put under strain, with a number of disputes including a political row over trade arrangements. “The monarchy might be one conduit to try to repair this,” says Mulhall.
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.