Inside Story

Ireland and Britain: neighbours in transit

Dublin and London are finding common diplomatic ground just as politics is sweeping them off their feet

David Hayes London 31 August 2014 6832 words

True encounter: The Queen Elizabeth speaks at Dublin Castle, Ireland, on the second day of her four-day visit to Ireland in May 2011. “With the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all,” she said. AP Photo/Pool

A wordless gesture can say and mean more than any speech. In rare moments, it aligns an event with a choke-point of history to produce a sort of catharsis. In postwar Europe, the peak example is Willy Brandt’s impromptu Kniefall: the moment when the West German chancellor, visiting communist Poland in December 1970, paid respects at the Warsaw monument to the heroes of the ghetto uprising of 1943 and then, stepping back, crumpled in grief. The fact that Brandt was a principled social democrat who had spent the war years in Norwegian exile, and was now pursuing a rapprochement with Soviet-bloc eastern Europe (via the so-called Ostpolitik), made his action all the more affecting. “I did what people do when words fail,” he later said.

Nelson Mandela’s wearing of a Springbok shirt at the rugby world cup final in 1995 more deliberately used his unique authority to inject an already intense symbolic occasion with a memorable, personal twist. It’s not only leaders: think of Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s black-gloved defiance at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, Nicky Winmar’s gesture at Victoria Park in Melbourne in 1993, or the shopping-bag citizen who stopped a row of tanks in Beijing in 1989. Where such protests (to cite Karl Kraus) “make the silence audible,” a mute gesture from power can also be an act of release.

Another example of the latter, this time from Europe’s far west, came in May 2011, when the head of state of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, within three hours of her arrival in Dublin, laid a wreath at the memorial to those who died in the cause of Ireland’s freedom between 1798 and 1921. The scheduled four-day state visit, a century after the last British monarch had set foot on (southern) Irish soil, was by that token already qualified in most accounts as “historic.” The preparation on both sides had been exacting, as had speculation over quite what the encounter between the British Queen and the Irish people would produce.

The precedents were too remote, the subsequent history too dense, to offer a reliable guide. An impetus behind the diplomatic initiative had been the Queen’s abiding wish to follow her grandfather, George V, who had visited Ireland in July 1911 when the third effort at Westminster to enact “home rule” – amid unionists’ bitter opposition, in London and Ireland – was taking shape. Then, as under Queen Victoria, attitudes to the monarch in Ireland covered a wide spectrum. (Crown and Shamrock: Love and Hate Between Ireland and the British Monarchy, published in 2009, is a vivacious study by the pioneering Irish feminist Mary Kenny.)

These uncertainties reinforced the frisson in the stately Garden of Remembrance, where all the choreography was in place: flags and anthems, dignitaries and fly-pasts, media and security batteries. The jeers from among the few dozen demonstrators corralled a few streets away mingled with helicopters’ whirring. President Mary McAleese and Queen Elizabeth II stood in front of the curved wall inscribed with Liam Mac Uistin’s poem Rinneadh Aisling Dúinn, or We Saw a Vision (“Winter became summer. Bondage became freedom and this we left to you as your inheritance. / O generations of freedom remember us, the generations of the vision.”) The guest was first to be handed her wreath of poppies. She placed it on the easel, stood back – and bowed.

In that instant the word “historic” was stripped of inflation and artifice. As the plane descended, the national mood – admittedly a nebulous notion – might plausibly have been described as a blend of curious and welcoming, with a touch of alertness to the merest signal of British elite condescension. Its gauge now flickered. A monarch’s deference to a rebel nation’s pantheon was heart-stopping enough. It also had a disarming hint of the one thing that elite had so rarely showed: respect.

The seal was fixed the following evening, when the Queen opened her speech at the official banquet with a greeting in flawless Irish (“A Uachtaráin agus a chairde,” or “President and friends”) and went on to acknowledge a “troubled past” of “heartache, turbulence and loss” in which “we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all.”

The formal events – which included a ceremony at the long neglected but now finely restored memorial gardens at Islandbridge, where Ireland’s 49,400 dead in the Great War are honoured, and a visit to Croke Park, the arena where British forces shot dead fourteen people at a Gaelic football match in 1920 – gradually became a touch more relaxed. At the English Market in Cork, the republic’s second city, bonhomie subverted protocol. By the end, much of Ireland’s media was suggesting that the country had in some small but definite way moved.

Perhaps there was a degree of self-willed emotional compulsion in it. Around monarchy, there often is. The Sydney University historian Richard Waterhouse says of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1897: “Some people may have disagreed. But they kept their mouths shut. Basically, [it] was an enormous demonstration of loyalty.’’

At heart, though, the encounter was true. As the plane departed, the leading journalist and oracle Olivia Leary distilled it on the public-service broadcaster Raidió Teilifís Éireann, or RTÉ:

At times it felt like a pilgrimage, and perhaps that’s what it was… As every day went by, you felt people growing warmer and warmer toward her… Respect was the hallmark of this visit… She bowed her head in respect for our revolutionary dead. Does she know how much that meant? I suspect she does. There was a determination in the way she went about her task that indicated she had thought deeply about it.

The sequel came in April 2014 with a state visit to the United Kingdom by Michael D. Higgins, elected McAleese’s successor as Ireland’s president in October 2011. Again it was the first since the two countries separated in 1922; again it was a prodigious story in the Irish media; again, on all evidence, it was a great success. This time there was no single piercing moment, though there were echoes of those Dublin ceremonies: the president’s inspection of the colours of Irish regiments in the British army, kept in Windsor Castle since the war against independence was lost, and a pause at the Westminster Abbey plaque to Louis (Lord) Mountbatten, the Queen’s cousin, who was blown up with three others in Sligo in 1979 by the Irish Republican Army, or IRA.

Higgins, widely and usually with fondness referred to as “Michael D,” is an esteemed scholar and poet who long represented the Labour Party (perennially in third place behind Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael). Like his predecessors, McAleese and Mary Robinson, both lawyers, his heart beats on the left. His itinerary highlighted the major contribution of Irish people to British society, from the health service and construction industry to culture and new business sectors. A ceiliúradh (celebration) at London’s Royal Albert Hall featuring renowned musicians from several genres and generations, shown live on RTÉ, was a joyful climax.

Four years of high diplomacy, political dialogue, business and civic networking had completed the circle in a way satisfying to both sides. If there is a single high period in Irish–British relations over the last nine decades, 2011–14 is it. Even if the rewards are less visible than the stage-design (which, despite everything, really matters), the overall performance is to the credit of all those on both sides who, behind the scenes, made it real.

In a longer view, the roots of this Irish–British embrace lay in a series of collaborative efforts from the 1980s that sought to resolve the bitter, intractable Northern Ireland conflict. The landmarks included the Anglo–Irish agreement of 1985, reached by the Irish taoiseach (prime minister) Garret Fitzgerald and his British counterpart Margaret Thatcher; the Downing Street declaration of 1993, signed by Albert Reynolds and John Major, which led to the IRA ceasefire of 1994; and – after the IRA resumed its campaign with a massive bomb in London’s Canary Wharf in 1996 – the Good Friday agreement of 1998, when Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair represented the two governments, alongside the local political (and paramilitary) actors, and American ones, who were all integral to that breakthrough deal. The British–Irish agreement of 1999 put the deal into statute, though it would take the St Andrews agreement of 2006 to unlock a crisis over policing, justice and power-sharing matters.

All these Dublin–London initiatives were steeped in the pain and tension of the surrounding nightmare. (The partial exception was the endgame of the late 1990s, when a current of febrile hope started to infuse the “peace process.”) Three incidents in Ireland’s capital left long shadows: the burning of the British embassy in February 1972, days after the massacre in Derry (Londonderry), Northern Ireland’s second city, when fourteen unarmed protesters had been shot dead by the British army; the city centre car-bombings of May 1974, which killed twenty-seven people and injured nearly 300, perpetrated by the Ulster Volunteer Force, an extreme “Loyalist” group; and the murder of the British ambassador, Christopher Ewart-Biggs (along with a colleague), in July 1976.

The “legacy issues” of the three-decade conflict – which cost over 3600 lives, 2000 of them civilian – remain acute. They include the 1974 bombings in Dublin (and a linked operation in the border town of Monaghan, which killed seven people), where suspicion of complicity from British security personnel is still being pursued by bereaved families. Yet the progress since those dark years is undeniable, and the diplomatic advance of 2011–14 exemplifies it.

Now, though, the latter has reached a crossroads. History doesn’t stop anywhere, but the Atlantic Isles (some variant of which might become timely in place of the waning “British Isles”) is one of the several world regions where there’s a sense of things speeding up. The components include the forthcoming referendum on Scotland’s independence, a likely one over UK membership of the European Union, and the political evolution of Northern Ireland. All to some degree interlink, all reflect long-term trends as well as more immediate power struggles, and all are of deep concern to Ireland. The future of devolution in Wales, and its possible extension to English cities and regions (where resentment of London-centrism is growing), is in the mix too.

The closer links between Dublin and London are part of this bigger canvas. Arguably their status as the region’s two centres of state sovereignty makes the diplomatic cycle of 2011–14 significant not just in inter-state terms but in relation to what the 1999 agreement called “the totality of relationships among the peoples of these islands.” In this dual perspective, a key question raised by the British–Irish love-in is whether it turns out to be an end in itself or contributes to a more far-reaching agenda, both bilateral and regional.

The timing might seem to favour ambition, with the state visits and their inclusive language of good neighbourliness as a lever. (Higgins’s reflection at Windsor on an Irish seanfhocal, or adage, and his adjusting of the translation to “we live in the shelter of each other,” from the more literal “shadow,” was a gracious example.) But the arts of high diplomacy can only take things so far. To build on recent progress, strategic purpose backed by political will and skill – as well as luck – would be needed. If these are absent or fail, 2011–14 may yet be seen as more an end than a beginning.

Much depends on the course of political events, with governments in both countries facing domestic pressures and constraints that could disrupt the benign energy flow. The two coalitions – Fine Gael–Labour in Ireland, Conservative–Liberal Democrat in Britain – are struggling with the consequences of the financial near-collapse of 2008–09 as they attempt to force sharp austerity programs on resentful voters tempted by populist insurgents to right or left. The continuation of either in their present form looks unlikely after the next elections (May 2015 in Britain, April 2016 at latest in Ireland).

The most significant probable shift here is the entry of Sinn Féin into government. This former political wing of the now disbanded IRA is matching its great strength in Northern Ireland with momentum in the south, reflected in advances in the local and European elections in May 2014. True, a feature of the diplomatic détente has been the notable cordiality between Queen Elizabeth and Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, a senior Sinn Féin figure and former IRA commander. It’s a minor example of the strategic repositioning that brought Sinn Féin to shared power in Belfast in 2007 and, now, closer to it in Dublin. The party had opposed the Queen’s visit as “premature” – its deputy leader and perennial rising star Mary Lou McDonald oversaw a plan for protests – but quickly backtracked under sweeping popular and media criticism. Michael Browne, the Sinn Féin mayor of Cashel, broke a taboo by greeting the royal visitor in person, opening the way for McGuinness to do so in Belfast the following year.

More and larger compromises will be needed – even cathartic ones – before the party can be accorded full democratic legitimacy. Gerard Howlin, an advisor to the Fianna Fáil–led government that was tumbled out of office in 2011, argues in the Cork-based Irish Examiner that “ambiguities” about Sinn Féin’s past are “inexorably coming centre stage” and require “a reckoning, and a truth telling”:

While Sinn Féin remains in opposition, its past is the currency of political [change], but no more. In government, holding the seal of office, an unresolved, and unmediated past will become a central issue for the integrity of the State… The lesson of our recent history is that eventually every omertà collapses. Unaddressed and unresolved, [Sinn Féin’s] past role in its own communities will inevitably collide with the future it expects in government.

What impact such a process would have on Sinn Féin itself and Irish politics can only be guessed. As things stand, the party’s presence in a Dublin government will be a momentous event in Ireland’s modern history, and shake the political terms of trade with London.

Today’s political variables also have constitutional dimensions. The referendum in Scotland on 18 September and the probable UK-wide one over Europe, existential for London, are for Dublin “only” repercussive. But though scrupulously detached in public, Dublin is by turn wary and nervous.

Scottish independence, it reasons, might unsettle Northern Ireland, where Dublin shares with London an interest in internal stability and political progress. The 1998 agreement that ended the “troubles” was guaranteed by both governments and endorsed in cross-border referendums (in the south taking the form of a constitutional amendment). It and the 2006 follow-up have held; violence since has been confined to ex-IRA “dissidents” and local disputes – ugly, though less deadly – over sectarian parades or symbols. But the agreements also entrenched a static form of politics that benefits the lead parties within the main Protestant and Catholic voting blocs (respectively the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin). In the absence of movement, Sinn Féin proposes a “border poll,” in effect a referendum on Irish reunification.

The veteran historian John A. Murphy of University College Cork, in a stinging assault on Sinn Féin’s “tortured theology” – which drew a response from the party’s long-term president, Gerry Adams – calls the poll “a pointless, regressive and destabilising exercise.” But from Sinn Féin’s viewpoint the idea has the attractions – albeit mainly for its supporters – of borrowing from the Scottish–UK debate in a practical way, keeping Northern Ireland’s constitutional status alive as an issue, unnerving its unionist opponents, and advertising its credentials as a movement on a long march.

Scotland is thus another source of polarisation in northern politics. A “yes” vote would be celebrated by nationalists as a victory of their own. But even a “no,” if followed by more tax and welfare powers (as the main British parties have promised), will have knock-on effects for Northern Ireland and Wales, the United Kingdom’s other “devolved” regions. Ireland would live with and make the best of Scottish independence if it has to. The lands connected by the North Channel, after all, share rich historical and cultural links, which academia has extended; both the Dublin-based Institute for British-Irish Studies and the Aberdeen-based Research Institute for Irish and Scottish Studies were founded in – significantly – 1999. But where the United Kingdom as a whole is concerned, Ireland is at present a status-quo power.

Martin Mansergh, a long-term Fianna Fáil strategist who for decades was at the heart of Dublin’s planning and negotiation over Northern Ireland, says public neutrality is essential. But, he adds, “Official Ireland has little enthusiasm for Scottish independence, attaching much more importance to the cordiality of British–Irish relations and the stability of the peace process; it also perhaps fears increased investment competition.”

Dublin’s position is even clearer with regard to Europe, which both states joined (when it was the European Economic Community) in January 1973. Much of the Irish economy is geared towards the United Kingdom, which is also its major trading partner. After Ireland’s humiliating bailout of 2009 and loss of control over its finances – as a member of the eurozone it had little room for manoeuvre – its former ardour for the European Union has cooled, but British withdrawal would entail a protracted and costly readjustment that it would much prefer to avoid.

Britain’s (especially England’s) now deep-rooted anti-EU sentiment makes the prospect feasible if not yet probable. A lot depends on the much-touted “national competences” David Cameron’s government seeks to regain as the price of staying in, which all other member-states would have to agree to. Europe’s own reform agenda under a new commission, and the eurozone’s persistent weakness, will also be present in everyone’s calculations.

For its part, Ireland is in too deep to contemplate departure from the European Union, despite widespread discontent with aspects of it. Meanwhile, the painful fallout from the implosion of the bubble years – psychological as well as material – is visible in high public and private debt, unemployment, fury over a still flowing gravy train, creative cultural dissent, and the emigration that carries away so many talented and well-qualified young people. All this leaves Ireland’s politics in transition, while its intellectuals balance the books and chart possible futures. So deceptively similar to London’s, and Scotland’s, and Wales’s, and Northern Ireland’s – and yet also, like each of these, a world by itself.

Against the onrushing power of events to shroud even the recent past in oblivion, those who see shapeshifting potential in the Ireland–Britain concord place hope in a longer history. In their view, if the period since the Northern Ireland settlement of 1998–99 ultimately made the state visits feasible, the generous spirit that pervaded them reflects a revised awareness of what occurred a century ago. The longue durée, once a shadow, can become a shelter.

The crucial period is 1912–23, which set the template for quickening history and is now bequeathing a traffic jam of unavoidable centenaries. These years – beginning in social unrest and political crisis, continuing through war and revolution – ended in a conditional sundering of the two countries. In 1912, Ireland was part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland; in 1922, the island was divided into two jurisidictions, with four-fifths of it forming the new Saorstát Éireann (Free State) and the remainder – with its inbuilt Protestant–unionist majority – choosing to join the now diminished UK state. The intervening years had seen polarisation over home rule, armed mobilisation by unionists and nationalists, a world war that first modified then revived the enmity, the Easter rising, a vast movement against conscription, an election won decisively by pro-independence forces, anti-British guerrilla war, and civil war over the Anglo–Irish treaty of December 1921 that ended the preceding conflict.

By a mix of circumstance and design, the burst of conviviality between Ireland and Britain at official level came just as the “decade of centenaries” was getting under way. (This is the official rubric of Ireland’s series of commemorations.) It has seemed a propitious moment for those most closely involved in both islands – diplomats and politicians, ceremonialists and historians, archivists and curators – to think more expansively about the period. The state visits, with their social and cultural dimensions, might even encourage renewed understanding of the importance of exploring Ireland and Britain’s history across a broad spectrum, open to interconnection and even intimacy as well as outright conflict; and along the way, move back and forth across borders, imaginative and political (as well as ignoring borders where these are irrelevant.)

Much of this has been happening, or (in scholarly work) continued to happen. Catriona Pennell’s article, A Truly Shared Commemoration? Britain, Ireland and the Centenary of the First World War, published in the RUSI Journal in August 2014, is a model. The diplomatic concord tends to be more of a remote if favourable hum than any clear influence, though with regard to the Great War it has become more visible. An international commemoration of the start of the war on 4 August saw President Higgins join British and other European leaders, including Germany’s Angela Merkel, at sites of memory on the western front. More broadly, interest in Irish men and women’s service in the war, their histories and fates, continues to mushroom in Ireland, after a long period when their experience was shrouded in public amnesia and private silence.

Many local, institutional and family research projects are also under way, and a recurrent theme is descendants’ uncovery of the fact that members of their family, or even a single one at different times, served in both the British army and the IRA. “Chunnacas na mairbh beò” (The dead have been seen alive), as the Scottish Gaelic poet Sorley Maclean wrote in another context, and in the awakening many Irish people are forging a new relationship with their past.

Here, official support has contributed to enriched understanding of Ireland’s experience of the Great War. The impressive range of works discussed in History Today magazine by Catriona Pennell is another indication of the growing interest in this theme. The multi-authored volume edited by John Horne and Edward Madigan, Towards Commemoration: Ireland in War and Revolution 1912-1923, published by the Royal Irish Academy in 2013, is a particularly valuable survey of the challenges involved.

Even these trends, though, are part of a continuum rather than a new departure. The move towards normalising the Irish contribution to the 1914–18 war and regarding it as a source of pride has been growing since the end of Northern Ireland’s troubles. (The journalist Kevin Myers traces the change in perceptions to the previous year, 1997, and the shocked reaction to the IRA blast at a remembrance day gathering in Enniskillen, which killed eleven people.) In 1993, Mary Robinson was the first Irish president to attend the remembrance day service at St Patrick’s Protestant church in Dublin. And in 1998, Mary McAleese – then a year into her own first term as president – inaugurated the Island of Ireland Peace Park at Messines (Mesen) in Belgium alongside Queen Elizabeth, in honour of Irish military personnel who had served in the war.

By 2008, Sinn Féin representatives, too, were attending the annual ceremonies at the Islandbridge memorial to Great War veterans, and at the Somme cemeteries in France, where the tens of thousands of dead in 1916 included many Protestant Ulstermen, but also Catholics. (Richard S. Grayson’s micro-history, Belfast Boys: How Unionists and Nationalists Fought and Died Together in the First World War, published in 2009, charts in fascinating detail such shifts of remembrance.)

Ireland’s reworking of its Great War experience has made this the least contentious of the themes connecting Ireland and Britain around the decade of centenaries. The sombre amity that marked the 4 August ceremonies may be harder to achieve with, say, the 1917 conscription crisis, the 1919 outbreak of the independence war, or above all the centrepiece event of the decade, the 1916 rising. “[The] most potentially divisive anniversaries are yet to come,” as Marianne Elliott of Liverpool University has written.

But this is also to say that most commemoration over the coming years, and its associated debates, will remain national in its form, focus and passions. Elliott’s observation – in a review of Charles Townshend’s terrific book The Republic: The Fight for Irish Independence, 1918–1923, published in 2013 – describes, after all, the potential for an Irish history war or two, rather than on any Irish–British one. In fact the Historikerstreiten are already underway, albeit still in skirmish mode.

An example is the furore over comments made by the Fine Gael ex-taoiseach John Bruton at an event at the Irish embassy in London to mark the enactment in 1914 of the home rule bill (formally, the Government of Ireland Act). Bruton praised the role of John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party at Westminster, in helping secure its passage, called for this anniversary to be celebrated, but regretted that the achievement had been eclipsed by the violence of 1916, which had inflicted “damage” on the “Irish psyche.”

The remarks, elaborated in an article in the Irish Times, provoked a vigorous response from commentators and rival politicians, including Fianna Fáil’s Éamon Ó Cuív, grandson of Éamon de Valera, the most prominent political figure in the state’s history. The most lucid rebuttal came from Ronan Fanning of University College Dublin, or UCD, and author of Fatal Path: British Government and Irish Revolution, 1910–1922. Fanning, also a participant at the London meeting, argued that the 1914 act was “a settlement that never was” that “could never have been implemented as it was enacted,” and warned that any commemoration of it “would be historically disreputable.”

Fanning broadened his case to the centenaries decade as a whole:

Commemoration… is an entirely laudable if somewhat utopian political exercise. But it is not history. The danger is that its practitioners would shrink from seeking to establish a value-free history of 1912–1922, but would instead massage history into moulds designed to persuade the people of Ireland, North and South, unionist and nationalist, to prefer modes of commemoration least likely to exacerbate the latent tensions between divided communities.

Again, let me emphasise, an admirable political objective in theory. But, in practice, the propagation of a bland, bloodless, bowdlerised and inaccurate hybrid of history which, if carried to extremes, is more likely to provoke political outrage than to command intellectual respect, let alone consensus.

This vigilance over the many centennials that are already suffusing Irish public life (the vast majority of them local) extends to their British component, such as that might be. A forewarning came in the afterglow of President Higgins’s visit in 2014, when a government minister suggested that a senior member of the royal family be invited to attend the main ceremony in Dublin marking the Easter rising of 1916. An Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll found 69 per cent of Irish people in favour of the idea, and 21 per cent against; even Sinn Féin voters (by 55–38) supported it.

Yet criticism of the proposal as ill-timed and misjudged came, inter alia, from two renowned historians of different generations, John A. Murphy and Diarmaid Ferriter of University College Dublin. Both had, on RTÉ and other media, offered highly positive assessments of the impact of both state visits; for this very reason, their instinctive sense of propriety regarding the pivotal event in Ireland’s decade of centenaries sounded with a distinct clatter.

The issue will surely return as a component of the defining 1916 commemoration. Gerard Fitzpatrick – who recently discovered that a great-uncle was killed on the first day of the Somme in 1916, a man he describes as “just one of hundreds of thousands of ‘disappeared’ in our complex national story” – encapsulates some of what is at stake in the Irish Examiner:

I am in favour of the attendance of members of the British Royal family at the 1916 commemorations. We do not need their attendance – we do not need anyone’s. It is our moment. Padraig Pearse read those inspiring words outside the GPO: “we are a risen people, you may inflict more but we will endure.” And we have endured, though we are still some way short of the aspirations set out in the Proclamation. The event is about us, but we are at a stage in all the relationships in these islands, not least with ourselves, that we can share it, even with the most culpable. It is essential to our own dignity that visitors are there as guests and not as the focus.

Yet a moment when a society is forced to measure the distance between its past and present tends along the way to yield unforeseen outcomes, all the more so if it retains openness to fresh information, to new forms of self-understanding, and to surprise. Indeed, it could be held that this is also what 1912–23 was about: a period which evidently was history-on-speed but itself took place in history, its teeming cast of characters shaped by the previous era and, very often, transformed as individuals in the next, even more tumultuous one.

A perception of this kind informs the current work of Roy Foster, which excavates the neglected diversity and vitality of the “revolutionary generation” over this larger period. Foster, the most luminous of Irish historians, describes his “group biography” approach – elaborated in his forthcoming book, Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890–1923as in part an effort to recover the “expected futures that never happened.”

Such ideas will become part of the interplay between historical dialogue, public memory and political dynamics as all these unfold across the centenaries decade. The wider relevance to it of Ronan Fanning’s warning about designing history to suit present purposes, or Roy Foster’s emphasis on the many buried tributaries of a complex past, is evident.

Again, though, the core elements of the interplay will continue to be internal as between Ireland and Britain. This is not to undervalue the diplomatic feat of 2011–14 in consolidating the idea of a shared field of history, nor its benefits in other areas (social, psychological and material) where these can be established. The goodwill and openness to others’ experience, and the chance to insert a degree of cooperation into some centennials are welcome. At the same time, history will always strive to breathe free of attempts to corral it, including the well intentioned.

The many variables in play on both sides leave the future course of Irish–British relations open. If Scotland votes “yes” on 18 September – unlikely, but possible – the next two years (at least) will be dominated by negotiations between London and Edinburgh over the terms of separation. The United Kingdom would be reduced to England, Wales and Northern Ireland and lose a third of its territory, releasing tremors in its domestic corners and among international partners. The deeper impacts would be psychological as much as geopolitical. The United Kingdom will have become a failed state twice over. Within months, new histories will be in the shops linking 1707–2016 to 1801–1922, the years of Scotland and Ireland’s respective welding into union with England and their dates of departure. The whole period will be rethought as well as rewritten.

Even a Scottish “no” to independence will redirect British governance towards a more decentralised (and perhaps quasi-federal or confederal) system. Moreover, no matter the result, the United Kingdom, or what remains of it (“rUK”), will continue to face very severe economic, social and security pressures. Either outcome will leave the constitutional issues that led to the referendum to be addressed in another way. (Martin Mansergh is sanguine even about a “yes”: “What Scottish nationalism is looking for, by retaining Queen Elizabeth as head of state, is dominion status, very different from militant Irish republican separatism. That ought to lead to an amicable relationship between Edinburgh and London from the start.”)

In principle, a “no” would be an opportunity for a relieved London to take a more proactive role in recasting UK governance in dialogue with its constituent parts. Where Northern Ireland is concerned, that would require close cooperation with Dublin. It’s hard to see, however, where the strategic drive would come from. Britain’s coalition government is tired and distracted; approaching the 2015 election and thus increasingly divided between its two parties; and already over-committed to major, expensive reform projects. Its Conservative component, with a support base mainly in England’s south and midlands, lacks the political credit to lead, far less to speak for, the country as a whole (if anyone any longer can). Where the United Kingdom is concerned, London too is a status-quo power.

It gets worse. Two conceits have taken hold in Britain’s political discourse in 2013–14, belatedly some would say: that the country is undergoing an “identity crisis” (the New York Times’s endorsement giving this one traction) and that it no longer has a foreign policy (impotence or drift over Syria–Iraq, the European Union, and just about anywhere being adduced to make the case.) Each has acquired instant-wisdom status, which obliges care. But behind the cliche is hard reality. The United Kingdom is living beyond its means (the debt, structural and household, and trade figures remain horrendous), its global ambitions exceed its grasp, its defence resources and posture are a mess, and its governance architecture and tools are unfitted to serve a modern democracy. Meanwhile its outer regions are revolting and the world beyond imploding. In such conditions, confusion over national identity and state policy seems a perfectly rational response.

The corollary of these trends is a general shrinkage of the curiosity span. The success of the United Kingdom Independence Party, or UKIP, in taking votes from the leading parties owes something to its stop-the-world-we-want to-get-off appeal. Much of England is waking up to the referendum to the north on its very eve, while devolution has made the country’s different parts – even northern and southern England – more imaginatively distant from each other (not that they were all that close before). Nor is this just, or even mainly, an English problem. London’s indifference to the land beyond is an easy target, but a lot of commentary on the metropolis from outside is one-eyed to a comical degree, while there is near-zero media coverage of Wales or Northern Ireland from elsewhere in the United Kingdom. (The BBC’s “nations, regions and communities” remit – including its Parliament channel – makes it a exception.) The affective bonds across this odd, multiform, intensely local state are both attenuating and recomposing. Pompous reassertions of “Britishness” from the centre will do nothing to halt these processes.

All this, part of the wider background on the UK side to the state visits with Ireland, can only cast doubt on how much Britain is prepared to invest in the relationship. A revealing sign here is the stark imbalance in reporting of the visits: whereas coverage in Ireland in press and broadcast media in both 2011 and 2014 was vast and backed up by a wealth of analysis, in Britain it was confined to the spectacle in the first case and cursory in the second, with very little acknowledgment of any wider significance.

The less obvious reasons include the difficulty of assimilating the events into Britain’s usual stifling Mail-Guardian mutual hate-fest: too clearly a “good news” story, too confusing for the dreary steeples of Kensington and King’s Cross to press into their feed-the-seals formulae. The more obvious include that withering curiosity span, and the fact that Ireland is close, assumed to be familiar, and seems to offer little to write about, though the country’s post-2008 years have been among the most dramatic in the state’s history.

The end of the Northern Ireland conflict is part of the picture too. Violence (still intermittent in the north) is news, peace is not. David McKittrick, the Independent’s brilliant correspondent during much of the conflict, and co-author of one of its greatest books, Lost Lives, now writes obituaries for the newspaper. Scotland’s two leading papers, the Herald and Scotsman, publish very little about Ireland and have no correspondent there, whereas the Irish Times’s London editor Mark Hennessy manages also to cover the referendum in depth. With few exceptions (among them the weekly newspapers of the Irish community, the Irish Post and Irish World), Ireland is off the map of British media. Perhaps Scotland’s independence will help redress the imbalance.

Britain is far more a natural, everyday presence in Ireland’s media, and consciousness, than vice-versa, from the London papers’ Irish editions to free availability of the BBC. Olivia O’Leary gave a warm, teasing speech at the Ceiliúradh about the host country (“I’m here to report that it’s now official: we are allowed to like the British. Indeed, many of us have doing it secretly for years”) which, as ever, spoke for many: “We love the BBC. We’ve watched it for years without paying a licence fee. And we’re utterly unrepetentant about that. We regard that – I think maybe the British do too – as a small down payment on the debts of empire.”

Ireland’s, or perhaps Dublin’s, attention, reflecting the glamour and power of the capital back to it, is also London-centric, for all the obsession with English soccer and the existence of large Irish settlement in the game’s heartlands such as Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Birmingham. The Ceiliúradh, from Paul Brady’s spine-tingling rendition of Nothing But the Same Old Story to the soul diva Imelda May’s Kentish Town Waltz, was in effect a love-letter to Irish London.

Ireland has also got much more on its mind, not least how to move beyond the property market and banking collapse of 2008-09 which propelled the country into a crushing emergency bailout by the “Troika” (European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund), a period that lasted until December 2013. A limited recovery is under way, but conditions remain tough: the eurozone is flat, the debt legacy from the end of the bubble years huge, the refinancing schedule ominous. The debate over what went wrong has moved from finance to the hollowing of Ireland’s democracy and the hunt for a new political economy, reflected (among many other works) in Fintan O’Toole’s excoriating Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger, published in 2009 and Donal Donovan & Antoin E Murphy’s The Fall of the Celtic Tiger: Ireland and the Euro Debt Crisis, published in 2013.

Popular disgust at the shocking presumption and even greater unearned rewards of many in Ireland’s financial and political elites is unassuaged, with as yet ambiguous political effects. Fine Gael’s former lead strategist Frank Flannery, speaking at the prominent MacGill summer school in July 2014, even ventured a realignment involving merger on right (Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil) and left (Sinn Fein and Labour). The detail sounds implausible, but the reminder of the establishment’s survival instincts – and of more brittle party loyalties – is apt.

Where so much is open-ended it’s hard to see a door. What can be said, once more, is that Ireland-Britain’s 2011-14 is gone and its uplifting spirit can be bottled as little as that of London’s Olympics or Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games. The next phase requires a different approach, and here the Irish Times’s Mark Hennessy – writing on the eve of President Higgins’s visit – presciently, and subtly, advises a recharge. All the fine words are true, he says. “But relations between ministers, officials, institutions, though hugely important, are not the full sum of nations. Too often, people’s knowledge of each other [has] not progressed at the same speed – not because of bile, but largely due to lack of interest….Too often, relations between the English and the Irish suffer because each makes the mistake that the other is so close that they must be a known quantity.”

“The coming days offer an opportunity to build on relations. Much has been achieved. The official will on both sides to do more is there, too. But people must talk to people. The view held by some in Ireland that all is well with Anglo-Irish relations because Queen Elizabeth II is a remarkable woman is not sufficient foundation for the future. It is not that relations will descend back into the darker ages of the past. Rather, the concern is that an opportunity – one unmatched for centuries – will not be exploited to the full.”

Along with their other neighbours, Ireland and Britain today are evidently living not just with but in a history that is crowding their peoples. There are echoes here of a century ago, with its veering attachments and search for new forms of political community. In these complicated and fluid times, the futures that will and will not happen are again being decided. •