President Mary McAleese is a woman who, in a number of ways, I admire. When the BBC was making a documentary about Queen’s University’s 150th anniversary, she was a major contributor and over several days I got to talk to her and watch her interact with others. Outstanding intelligence and humanity at work. So when I heard she’d been the guest of honour at a PSNI passing-out parade, I was interested. Why was she there?
Well, the reason she WASN’T there is that she’s interested in policemen. Or that she figured they’d like to see her, or that Matt Baggot might make her and her husband a nice cup of tea. She was there because QE2 is planning to come to Dublin next year. The presence of the President of Ireland (well in practical terms the president of the twenty-six counties, since none of us north of the border is allowed to vote for her) at the ceremony, the pictures of her and Matt Baggot smiling and complimenting each other, the President’s denunciation of the people who had ‘set their faces like flint’ against any reconciliation – all that is meant to make nationalists feel good, that their top woman has definitely got a toehold and a voice north of the border. The flip-side of which is that when QE2 comes to Dublin she needs must be wined and dined at Áras an Uachtaráin, she must be greeted with courtesy and warmth by the populace, and above all, nobody must MENTION THE WAR. Or if they do, it’s all done now and we’re all friends together, right? That old Irish question has been answered, finally and completely. Right? And isn’t it great?
President McAleese makes an important point when she says the time has come to put aside old enmities. Sad to say that can be done only on the basis of justice and democracy. The fact is, Britain rules the northern corner of this island and the majority of Irish people don’t want that. Over 5,000 British troops are stationed in the northern corner of this island and the majority of Irish people don’t want that. It’d be nice if such uncomfortable facts could magically vanish and we could welcome the head of state of our nearest neighbour the way any civilized country should. But it’s not going to happen while Britain insists on maintaining its political and military grip in Ireland. If President McAleese thinks that attendance at a PSNI passing-out parade will mute the almighty outcry which will accompany such a visit, then the woman from Ardoyne, for all her intelligence, is sadly out of touch with nationalist/republican feeling throughout Ireland.