For RTE and the newspapers, pretending something is happening when nothing really is pays for food and rent so you can understand why they do it. At the same time, let’s not forget that when nothing is happening, sometimes it can be not-happening in spectacular fashion. It can not-happen with thousands of high-viz jackets and metal barriers clogging the streets. Non-events may be greeted with small riots and cause the guards to piss away a third of their annual budget in a week. Even factoring all this in, however, coverage of the royal and presidential visits has been… give me a second… appalling. The hacks have gone beyond their usual brief and actually creamed their pants. According to RTÉ, we have just witnessed “a momentous week in Irish history”. We’ve turned a page or a corner, depending on who you ask. The ghosts are laid to rest, the demons are exorcised…
So. On the one hand: paramilitaries fighting to overthrow or to uphold a semi-apartheid regime, followed by vicious sectarian violence and brutal state repression. On the other hand: pampered political elites kissing each other’s arses in stage-managed, rehearsed set-piece photo-opportunities. The relationship between those two things is hard to find. I see that Elizabeth Windsor was in charge when that apartheid state was going through some of its darkest times. I see that herself and Macaleese and Kenny are the leaders of the states with which the communities in the North identify.
So there are connections; this visit is a reflection of the fact that most people in both Britain and Ireland allowed it all to happen without active opposition. This is a fair-enough approach to something that should be harmless. The relationship between this stage-managed diplomatic dance and the real world is hard to find unless every organ of the press is yelling at you to look for it. This is where the problem lies: the visit would be grand, bland, meaningless crap like most such ceremonies if it weren’t for our politicians and journalists, who are trying to pretend it has some kind of implication for the real world.
What we witnessed over that week was an elaborate pantomime. “Highly symbolic” gestures. Calculated, allusive, almost meaningless speeches. Stage-managed photo-opportunities. All so symbolic. All so… medieval. Like the stations of the cross or a knight kneeling before his lord: a pageant designed to impart meaning to people who can’t read. The raptures of the newspapers over “symbolic” actions, therefore, were stinking explosions of patronizing horseshit. Communities cut by peace walls don’t need to watch political and aristocratic elites kissing each others’ arses to explain or to change their situation. But the “gestures” of this visit, which in reality had all the complexity of cave paintings (with none of the style), were enough to send the journalists and the politicians running for their laptops and microphones explaining the impact this would have on a reality that they themselves know little about.
All the same, to most people down South the visit said nothing. The only ones who cared enough get excited were political-heads of all stripes, journalists and West Britons. A lot of people turned out for the politically-neutral celebrity value of the event: the pageantry and the laugh, something out of the ordinary; which doesn’t amount to support. Even still the crowds were a bit thin. It was the journos and politicos, then, those with an abstract interest in the whole thing, who either creamed their pants or chucked fireworks at the guards.
There was no reality in the proceedings, and little or no implications for reality. To see Mrs. Windsor and Mr. Kenny as “symbolic” of their countries would take a stoned imagination. If the Queen wanted to see Ireland, then never mind the set dancing and the Guinness and the Garden of Remembrance. They should have lived for a week in some grim little Midlands town on nothing but an old-age pension. Over to the other side, the Republicans with their talk of “normalisation of partition” had a point, in that shit is far from normal and sheltered political elites shouldn’t pretend it is. But the UK as a whole would be content to lose Northern Ireland, only for the fact that the huge Unionist community would oppose such a move.
Nor is this an important step in the peace process or a moment of national catharsis. From mass demonstrations to some random individual refusing to hide weapons, it was the people of Northern Ireland who chose peace and it was only the people of Northern Ireland who had the power to achieve peace. State banquets, parades and ceremonies mean nothing. A page has not been turned, and the people who say so must be two or three chapters behind. In fact I suspect they’re reading an entirely different book.
Unfortunately lots of people desperately wanted it to mean something, not least its organizers and participants. All kinds of ridiculous things have been said and written. It’s been hard to escape. There are plenty of hilarious and infuriating examples. I won’t go into them.
However, a soundbite of our Taoiseach’s near the end of the visit was not just cheesy or stupid, but offensive. He said that the royal visit “sends out a message that Ireland has grown up.” The implication here is that our fight for independence, our neutrality and the Troubles can all be put down to juvenile immaturity. Imagine some Catholic lad who took up arms in the seventies, rightly frustrated with constitutional politics and his status as a second-class citizen. Imagine the sacrifices and hardships and terror he went through. In Enda Kenny’s eyes, he did all this essentially because he was stupid, because he hadn’t “grown up”.
So many people I’ve seen on TV, read in the papers and spoken to have had the same insane assumption underlying their words: that anyone who is not a well-off liberal democrat is just this great angry haze of irrationality. In their eyes the Troubles were “just crazy”, and that’s all that needs to be said. This is the horrible elitist shadow that lies behind every cuddly platitude about peace and reconciliation that we hear.
The Troubles erupted when a system and two nations reached breaking-point in an international era of revolution, and the masses had to intervene into history. Unionist and Nationalist politics have proved to be a dead end, but the situation was for a time wide open. It is no doubt easier for Enda Kenny and the likes of him to assume that violence broke out (and continues to this day) simply because people were stupid and immature, but shit is about to get serious again and we can’t have any patience with this crap any longer. With billions in cuts lined up by the Con-Dems, and Shinners and Unionists alike ready to collaborate, Northern Ireland may soon reach breaking point once more. So let’s ignore the royal visit and the horrible brainless things people said and wrote about it, but at the same time let’s study the past and prepare for the future.
Sectarian politics are discredited but Northern Ireland is still sinking into economic misery, like the Republic, like Britain. Communities are still divided, not because people are stupid, but for the very logical reason that limited resources make competition inevitable. Working class unity in the struggle for a socialist future is the only way out and, as before, when things reach crisis point people are not going to sit on their arses but will struggle for their future. A democratic Socialist society would provide the needed level of self-government, international solidarity and economic plenty and equality to erase these class-based divisions. But in the process of struggle itself, as in Egypt, the most bitter ethnic and religious hatreds vanish in the struggle against a common enemy. That’s where the future lies. Then we can talk about pages being turned and ghosts being laid to rest.
Against this long perspective, the royal visit and the protests and the masses of guards on the streets seem petty and insignificant. We’ll look back on this, if at all, with a laugh of disbelief.