“Gracious: elegant and tasteful, esp. as exhibiting wealth or high social status”.
That’s the definition of “gracious” I get in my dictionary, and it’s the word the Labour leader Eamon Gilmore used at a meeting of the British-Irish Association about a week ago: “I don’t underestimate the challenges this will involve but I know they are surmountable, especially if we take our lead from the gracious and mutual respect shown by Queen Elizabeth and President McAleese in Dublin two years ago”. You see what he did there? He told us QE2 was gracious to us but kind of nullified what looked like fawning by coupling her with President McAleese.
Eamon was talking about commemorating Easter 1916 (nothing like getting your retaliation in early). Mr Gilmore says people have a responsibility “to prepare and carry out our commemorations in a way that gives no offence and is mindful of the sensitivities of all citizens”. For example, he’s very disappointed with the way republicans commemorated their dead in Castlederg (a town which a £50 note tells me he’s never been in). Not good, that commemoration. Eamon thinks. Could have a corrosive effect on community relations. Which is fair enough - a man’s entitled to his opinion, even if the most recent polls show 93% of the people in the south have no time for his party. And I’m sure he feels equally strongly about the effect of the annual 3,000+ loyal order marches and their contribution to community relations. Not to mention the effect on the international image of the north when scenes of violence in Belfast city centre shows over 50 PSNI officers injured in their efforts to keep the peace, and unionist city councillors give the thumbs-up to the notion of killing lots of republicans. And then is supported in the courtroom by leading DUP figures.
Anyway, polls or no polls, Eamon is hopeful: “I would hope we can host representatives of the Royal Family and the British government, along with the leaders of unionism, in Dublin three years’ time in remembering the Easter Rising”.
As it happens, Eamon, I’m something of an expert on centenaries. No, seriously. You may have come across my elegant book of interviews Whose Past Is It Anyway? You haven’t? A treat in store, I promise you. In it I asked unionists and republicans and neither about attending the commemoration of ‘the other side’. In all cases, those of a republican and neither bent expressed a willingness to attend unionist commemorations of the signing of the Ulster Covenant in 1912. Now correct me if I’m wrong, Eamon, but I don’t remember huge numbers of nationalists/republicans/
neithers at the Ulster Covenant commemorations, which would suggest they weren’t asked. When I asked unionists about attending the commemoration of Easter 1916, on the other hand, they were distinctly unenthusiastic. As one remarked, it wouldn’t make much sense to attend events honouring those who had murdered his forebears. So while you may get Her Maj to attend, I’d say any unionist leader would have a long hard look over his shoulder before he signed on the dotted line.
What this is all about, of course, as was the Dublin visit of QE2 a couple of years ago, is drawing a line under the past and projecting a vision of the future. The past is put to bed, to vary the metaphor, as containing things we sometimes wish had been done differently or not at all. The future? Well, the future will be in marked contrast to the past and much more agreeable. The British now love the Irish so much, their head of state even learns five words of Irish and bows her head at a monument to republican dead. Republican dead, I hurry to add, that have been safely dead for some one hundred years. There’ll be no royal head- dipping in Castlederg to republican dead. Totally different. Too recent. No possible comparison.
And the Irish, in the form of the southern government, love the British. Between them they’ve solved the Irish question. All right, the North is governed in the important things like foreign policy and taxation from London, but clearly that’s better than people killing each other. The last one or two or three or four hundred years have been an unfortunate misunderstanding and everything is now settled. Sure we’re all grand.
I did mention that Eamon’s party is presently clocking support from 7% of the electorate, didn’t I? Don’t know why I mention that, because obviously it had nothing to do with Eamon’s speech to the British-Irish Association.