Proud to be British, proud to be Irish.
A historic day in Anglo-Irish relations.
I'm one of those happy people who have never had a problem acknowledging both my Britishness and my Irishness. Born into a British middle class family in Belfast, Northern Ireland, I owe much to the British system. Their health system, their social security and their education grants when I was growing up. I don't believe in biting the hand that fed me, and they fed me well, despite the fact that, in adulthood, I became astutely aware that their government had also allowed me to be disenfranchised as a political animal. I never enjoyed the benefit of being able to vote for a potential government-forming party, because the mainstream British political parties refused to set up constituency offices in Northern Ireland. Consequently, the government to whom I was beholden, were also the government who created me as a second class citizen.
There's no question that the Nationalist population of the north had cause to protest the denial of their Irish identity, but it should be noted that in many ways, the Unionist tradition had an even greater sense of betrayal, seeing their own government leave them out on a political limb.
Well, so much for my Britishness, but on so many levels, I have always believed myself privileged to be born on the island of Ireland. The people of this island, be they from Belfast, Derry, Dublin or Cork, have a warmth and a friendliness that is unmatched in my experience of other countries and peoples. Their sense of hospitality is legendary, and their pride in their country is paramount, regardless of which side of the political and cultural divide upon which they stand. I've been living in Galway for the best part of ten years now, and I don't feel like a stranger or a foreigner. I feel like I've moved in with the friendly neighbours who have always lived beside me, and with whom I've always shared so much common ground.
I've also become a student of Irish history, something that I had never really taken much interest in during my school days. And the more I read, and the more I learn, the more I understand why it is difficult for the older generations to leave their past behind and to look to a better future. I can't and won't apologise for my Britishness. I had no control over the circumstances of my birth. Nor would I expect any peaceful Irish citizen to feel any guilt for the actions of those who used the wrong and the callous methods of making their political points. But the time has come when we all need to keep history at a distance, and build a new and a better way to celebrate the things that we have in common.
Today, in my opinion, was a major step in that direction. Two amazing women came together with the good of two nations in their hearts, two nations as friends and neighbours. That Mary McAleese, a Northern Ireland Catholic, has been a driving force behind this historical moment, is a tribute to the stature of the woman. She has, perhaps, succeeded, where politics and terrorism have failed. She has awakened Ireland to the reality that Britain is a neighbour worth having, and with whom we can work, for the good of both nations.
And Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, has brought a new dignity to the British throne. Some cynics might see it all as a clever piece of political rhetoric, but I believe there was a deep sincerity in the manner in which the Queen has conducted herself on this official tour. There was never a chance that there would be an out and out apology for the British contribution to Ireland's traumatic past.... no more than the IRA will ever apologise for the deaths that their terrorism brought upon so many innocent people. However, her laying of a wreath in the garden of remembrance, her visit to Croke Park, and most significantly, the wonderful speech that she made, acknowledging errors of the past, were all gestures that must be looked upon as a wish on the part of Britain to become good and respectful neighbours. Did any of us imagine a day would ever come when the British monarch would begin an address on Irish soil, with a greeting in the Irish language? Next thing you know, Dr Paisley will become an honorary member of the GAA!!!
So today, I feel very proud of the Queen, and equally proud of the Irish President, but even more proud of Ireland as a nation for the manner in which they have responded to the visit. With dignity and pride. With a willingness to embrace the possibilities presented by such an historic event.
There will always be those who continue to follow a darker agenda, but hopefully, as we build more and more bridges of friendship and cooperation, those numbers will diminish, and we will be able to celebrate peace and goodwill. There's a long way to go, but this was no tiny step in the process... it was a major leap towards a better day.