Contrary to popular perception, most Irish people are not hardline republicans
The Irish flag is hanging at half-mast over the General Post Office on O’Connell Street, Dublin. The most hardened republicans may cringe at such a tribute: the GPO was the headquarters of Ireland’s failed insurrection against British rule, the 1916 Easter Rising. It is still riddled with bullet holes from the six days of fighting between the small cohort of Irish rebels and the British Army. It is in many ways the symbolic home of Irish independence.
But most Irish people are not hardened republicans. And this gesture is not out of step with the character of the nation or the will of its people. In fact, lowering the flag to half-mast is a rather unremarkable act.
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Britain’s frequent misread of Ireland is that it is a robustly nationalist country, and vehemently anti-monarchy. The recent electoral success of Sinn Féin — the face of Irish nationalism — is taken as evidence of this assumption. But Sinn Féin’s booming popularity is not because of its republican credentials but instead thanks to its social policy. Most people in the republic are ambivalent on the question of reunification. And the IRA never came close to having anything resembling popular support.
Instead, Ireland’s mainstream nationalism is moderate, and in possession of a quiet respect for the crown it once fought to remove.
Despite the crown’s fractious relationship with Ireland, the Queen played an active and central role in bringing an island – only recently at peace – closer to true reconciliation. Her understanding of Ireland’s fragile peace seemed instinctive, and the steps she took to heal the wounds inflicted by her ancestors were not costless. The IRA killed her husband’s uncle, Lord Mountbatten, along with two children in 1979. In 2012 she shook the hand of the IRA’s former leader, Martin McGuinness. And in 2011 she visited Dublin and laid a wreath at a monument to those who fought to dispose British rule in Ireland.
This forgiveness went both ways. In 2014 McGuinness toasted the Queen at a banquet in Windsor. In Dublin she was warmly received by Irish crowds and the president of an Irish republic. In 2007 in Croke Park — the sight of a 1920 massacre of Irish civilians at the hands of British forces — the English rugby team was welcomed and God Save the Queen was cheered.
Brexit has threatened to reopen old wounds both sides spent decades trying to heal, bringing the Anglo-Irish relationship to its lowest point since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. But the link has not been broken, and had it been the Crown could hardly be blamed anyway.
The extent of this progress cannot be better summarised than by the conciliatory tributes from even Sinn Féin’s leaders – the most straightforwardly nationalist, and anti-monarchist politicians in Ireland. “The British people will miss the leadership she gave as a monarch” said Michelle O’Neill, the party’s Northern Irish leader.
“Personally I am grateful for Queen Elizabeth’s significant contribution and determined efforts to advancing peace and reconciliation,” she added. The suggestion that a Sinn Féin politician could ever make such a statement even 20 years ago would have been incredible.
But now the Irish tricolour hangs at half-mast over the symbolic stronghold of the Irish republic, without so much of a flicker of discontent — proof of a world changed utterly by Britain’s longest reigning monarch.