The same message can be read through the Anglophobic reactions of many of the revolutionary generation; independence was necessary, one of them remarked, so the English would have to stop talking down to the Irish with their damned superior smiles. The subject of Englands condescension to its Celtic neighbours, currently back in focus as the Scottish referendum approaches, is a rich one. But as regards Ireland, the current state visit by President Michael D Higgins puts the seal on the end of an era.
The incomplete and uncertain way that Ireland left the Union may have contributed to the continuance of ancien regime attitudes. After a civil war fought over the question of allegiance to the crown, the country remained from 1922 to 1948 a restive member of the commonwealth, while establishing many of the institutions and appurtenances of an independent state. The surprise declaration of a 26-county republic in 1948 clarified some things about the relationship, but not all: certain reciprocal and non-reciprocal rights remained (the Irish in Britain retaining voting rights not awarded to the British in Ireland for many years). The continuing flow of emigration from Ireland to its larger neighbour was a constant. And official attitudes tended, in some ways, to view Ireland as not quite separate and certainly not equal. In the mid-20th century the Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen remarked that the two countries regarded each other with a mixture of showing off and suspicion, nearly as bad as sex.
The status of Northern Ireland
The process of recognising where the problems of identity and allegiance really lay was recognised from early on by talented and imaginative civil servants and diplomats in both Ireland and Britain who forged strong bonds with each other; it came to fruition in the series of statements and manifestos that began with the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 and proceeded through the Downing Street Declaration to the Belfast Agreement. For Britain and Ireland to follow a joint line on the status and future of Northern Ireland, delegating to its inhabitants the autonomy to shape their future, seems in 2014 only a matter of sense; but 30-odd years ago it looked like very long odds indeed.
Accompanying this process, and the mutual respect of mandarins, diplomats and politicians that survived the litany of crises and horrors through the 1970s and 1980s, were other, unconnected phenomena. One was Irelands enthusiastic embrace of Europe, and the transformed status this brought in terms of diplomatic and political relations. Another was the growing confidence, fashionability and influence of the Irish cultural presence in Britain. Irish actors, novelists, musicians, playwrights have scooped major prizes and awards and at certain points seemed to dominate the London scene (as anyone recently trying to get tickets for the revival of The Weir or Olwen Fouérés performance of riverrun can testify).
Changed profile of the Irish in Britain
The Presidents visit also speaks to, and reflects, the sense of identity among the Irish living in Britain. For those of us in London the atmosphere at receptions in the Irish Embassy, local gatherings in the Irish centres such as those in Camden and Hammersmith, or the Fleadh in Finsbury Park, is not that of mournful diaspora or the regrets of a disadvantaged community in exile. The ease with which Irish people settle in Britain – and vice versa – reflects not only a long and shared, if tangled, history. The kind of Anglo-Irish relations that are symbolised by reciprocal state visits, that are as enthusiastically embraced as the queens and the Presidents, suggest the two countries finally see each other as indeed separate but equal, in a mutually fulfilling relationship. Nearly as good as sex.