Of course we must open ‘a new chapter’: but before we do, we must read and acknowledge the old one

The Queen’s visit to Ireland is widely understood by most people in this country to be a series of occasions during which, by a series of powerful symbolic acts, she (as nobody else could, certainly no elected politician) is “drawing the line” under the troubled past relationship of our two peoples. With great magnanimity, most of the Irish people (and the Irish, as is well-known, have long memories) seem to be taking the visit in this light. We Brits should understand better than we do, however, just how much the Irish have had to remember, and how bitter the memory has been.

Before that line is drawn under our common history it would surely be a good thing if the British people were, one last time (and probably in many cases for the first time), to recall what it is that the line is being drawn under. We Brits, in contrast to the Irish, have conveniently short memories. By the time this post is online, probably, the Queen will have visited Croke Park, heartland of Irish nationalism and of the Gaelic Athletic Association. (In 1918 the GAA was banned by the British government.) I understand that this visit to Croke Park is taking place at the suggestion of the President of Ireland, the very impressive Mary McAleese, who is clearly making sure that the visit gives Her Majesty every opportunity for her to acknowledge, on our behalf, our own part in creating the bitterness of the past.

There is a good deal to acknowledge, for the fact is that we consistently behaved abominably in Ireland. We like to think of ourselves as a tolerant and civilised people; and on the whole we are. But we also have very selective memories; we are inclined to think that apart from a few untoward and probably unauthorised events, we can’t have been all that bad in Ireland. But what happened at Croke Park represents only the tip of a very large iceberg (of that, more presently). You can read about what happened on the first “Bloody Sunday” on the GAA’s website, in their own sober and incontrovertible account):

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“The night before [a Gaelic football match at Croke Park in November 1920] Michael Collins sent his ‘Squad’ out to assassinate the ‘Cairo Gang’, a team of undercover British agents working and living in Dublin. A series of shootings took place throughout the night which left 14 members of the British forces dead.”

The following day British forces, including the infamous “Black and Tans”, exacted their vengeance: they opened fire on the crowd at the match in Croke Park, killing 14 civilians. That evening, three IRA prisoners in Dublin Castle were beaten to death by their British captors. In the GAA’s own low-key assessment, “The events of the day had a profound impact on the people of Ireland; it seemed as if the British authorities had deliberately chosen an easy target – a stadium full of innocent people – to exact revenge for a military loss suffered the night before. Bloody Sunday shocked the British public too and while it is too simple to say that it helped end the War of Independence it must certainly be considered a key factor”.

It is worthwhile, if we are to understand the background to this event, to look at the role, in the early 20s, in the British attempt to contain the IRA, of the Black and Tans – so-called because they were a scratch force, uniformed in leftover khaki uniform trousers and leftover British police jackets.

They soon gained a reputation for ruthlessness and violence as the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) campaign against the IRA and Sinn Féin gathered momentum. In December 1920, the British government actually sanctioned “official reprisals” in Ireland for attacks on the RIC and British army: it was not the SS who invented this means of warfare against a civilian population. Normally, reprisals meant burning the property of IRA members and of their sympathisers, not murder: but, of course, it inevitably led to personal violence: the Black and Tans were not subject to the same discipline as members of the RIC and their deaths at the hands of the IRA provoked often bloody retaliation against civilians.

They burned and pillaged towns and villages throughout Ireland, including Tuam in County Galway, and Trim, Balbriggan, Knockcroghery, Thurles and Templemore. They even, in effect, laid siege to Tralee, as a reprisal for the IRA’s murder of two RIC officers. All the businesses in the town were closed down and for a week no food was allowed in; three civilians from the town were shot dead. They killed a priest and threw his body in a bog. Most astonishing of all, they sacked and burned down the entire centre of the city of Cork, which the Queen, God bless her, will also be visiting. You can see footage of the Black and Tans in action (including the burnt out city centre of Cork) on Youtube.

As David Cameron points out in an article in today’s Irish Times the selection of locations being visited by the Queen shows “that part of the intention of this trip is to pay respect to those who suffered through the course of our shared history”. “But”, he continues, “this visit is not so much about the closing of an old chapter, but the opening of a new one.”

“Not so much?” Oh, I would have thought very much more. Mr Cameron’s unfortunate phrase might well be taken, if any were in a mood to take offence (thank God, they don’t seem to be), as dismissing lightly a chapter which is still a living issue for many Irish people. The new chapter can’t be opened without what these days is called “closure”, an over-used expression which in this context is entirely appropriate.

As it is still a real issue for many Irish people, I have to confess that it is also for me. If you want to know why I, an Englishman, am going on about this at such wearisome length, let me explain. Fifty years ago, I was an undergraduate at Trinity College, Dublin. Coming from the blackness of a still soot-covered West Riding of Yorkshire to this wondrous place was one of the most momentous events of my life. I fell in love with Ireland and the Irish, hook, line and sinker. I avidly read Anglo-Irish literature (ie Irish literature in English). Then I learned about Irish history: firstly and least distressingly about the fight for Home rule (Parnell became my hero). Then I read about the Black and Tans. It was a dreadful shock: here were events about which few English people, to this day, have ever heard; I certainly hadn’t then. The more I learned, the more terrible it seemed: it wasn’t just the events of the “troubles” of the period beginning in Easter 1916; this was a deep-rooted phenomenon, going back hundreds of years.

Drawing the line under all that would be an amazing achievement; but most of the Irish seem to accept that that’s what the Queen has now come to do. It is a stupendous ambition and (so far) achievement, which we on this side of the Irish Sea should not underestimate. Only a monarch, surely, could so embody the national identity of her people as to make the symbolism of that simple gesture, of bowing her head before the memorial to those who died fighting her grandfather’s armed forces, so irresistible. Earlier in the day, as she inspected the guard of honour at Arus an Uachtarain, the presidential residence in Phoenix Park (how many times have I driven past it?) I found that tears had come to my eyes; when the tiny Irish airforce did a flypast, I was entirely undone.

Of course, the ground for all this had been well prepared, by President McAleese and her predecessor Mary Robinson, by Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, all the Taioseachs they had severally talked to, and everyone else involved in the Northern Irish peace process. But the chapter of our own fearful culpability in Irish sorrows (though it can never be erased) is now being, it seems, most wonderfully closed – by the generosity of the Irish people and by the bravery and the dignity and warmth of a monarch who hasn’t put a foot wrong. Now, Mr Cameron, we can open that new chapter. We can turn the page. Let’s do it.

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