The Queen is dead. When I heard this news, it was a bit of a shock. I’d grown up during the Troubles and had always regarded the British monarch as the arch enemy of Catholic Nationalists. Her government were responsible for bolstering a Unionist-led Stormont. The consequence of such support led to inequalities in housing, employment, and education.
Catholic civil rights were seriously undermined by Her Majesty’s government. Reminders of the queen couldn’t be avoided. Her image passed through our hands every day. It was her face on the coins and notes we used to shop with. It was her face on the money distributed to the unemployed who queued up each week to sign on the dole.
It was her government that brought to our shores the British Army. It was under her name did those forces intern almost 2,000 Catholics without any legitimate reason at her majesty’s pleasure. If your house was raided by the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary), it was under her name that they carried out that raid. And since my own family were deemed to be suspect, our house was frequently raided. My brothers were imprisoned at her pleasure and life during those times was not easy.
Needless to say, if you walked into a Catholic area in Belfast or Derry during those times, her name was graffitied with a few choice words that were not complimentary. However, if you strolled into the Shankill in Belfast, you would find her image glorified as a symbol of Protestant loyalism. For God and Queen, Queen and country were the diatribes of those who believed her to be loyal to their unionist cause.
Curbstones defined whether you were in a loyalist or nationalist neighbourhood. Her image is held in a place of importance in every police station. You couldn’t escape the fact that this woman was a part of your life whether you liked it or not.
My feelings towards the Queen are complicated. The things that are done in her name, Bloody Sunday, relinquishing of political status etc., have made it hard to think of her as a person and more of a political bully, a force of political oppression and someone opposed to a United Ireland. She epitomized the worst of British colonialism and the entitled aristocracy.
For a Catholic socialist, the monarchy is the antithesis of democracy, even if the title is without any real power. At the heart of Catholic nationalism, there was always a need to correct the blatant inequalities that her government allowed to continue in Northern Ireland until they were forced to intervene.
It’s hard to have any sympathy for a person whose image is seen every July 12th as the figurehead of the Orange Order. When her effigy is paraded around with men and women shouting insults towards their Catholic neighbours, playing in their ‘kick the Pope’ bands, it’s difficult to perceive her Majesty as anything other than a muse for sectarianism.
Given my background, it’s easy to see why my view of her has not been a positive one. I never thought that this perception of her would ever change, however, after her visit to the Irish Republic in 2011, I found myself in a bit of a quandary.
Socialist groups criticized the visit. Hardened Republicans were appalled by how the Irish government greeted the British monarch. It would seem natural that I would also find this visit a bit like rubbing salt in the wounds of oppression, but I didn’t.
I never thought I’d say it, but I admired her for a powerful symbolic gesture toward mutual respect. She wore green, she visited the graves of sites important to the cause of Irish Nationalism. Everything was handled in such a diplomatic way that it was a tremendous victory for those of us who believe in a peaceful way toward Irish unity.
She respectfully acknowledged the power of the Republic by speaking the Irish language, something a lot of couldn’t be bothered doing, and her visit didn’t go down well with her Unionist subjects in the North. She was willing to tread on the toes of her Northern supporters to build better relations between the two countries.
When I spoke about how I admired her visit, there were the usual cat calls of betrayal, which again only proves how sectarianism on either side only aims to unthinkingly demonize the other tribe so as to justify their hatred. The Queen was a woman who, like any of us, has made mistakes. Her mistakes have greater consequences than most of us, but equally, she’s had more responsibilities than most of us ever will.
When I heard of her death, I was not jumping up and down with glee. She will leave a powerful legacy that will live on, and part of that legacy will be her visit to Ireland.
There will be many of us who have grown up under her shadow who will think of her respectfully as a flawed person who tried to bridge some huge gaps between the two nations. Her visit didn’t change anything politically, but it did go a long way to changing my attitude towards her. It hasn’t erased the things done in her name, but it has tempered those actions with a genuine attempt to foster peace and reconciliation.
The following poem is something that I wrote before Queen Elizabeth’s death, and it best displays my feelings towards England.
England will always be a footnote to my life,
Always interrupting the flow.
I’m not a RA sort of person, far from it,
But Britannia appears on almost every page
A reference of sorts with additional information.
Language ebbs out of me in remote waves,
Well learned ripples making perfect sense,
Listening to native Irish speakers seems foreign,
The ripples of their sounds make no sense,
We look, act, and think the same,
But our thoughts pour out into a different sea.
But when Mise Eire pulls on the strings of the harp,
I rise on the crest of that lingering lamentation,
Which holds me in its melodious melancholy,
Like a fine familiar mizzle on a foggy past,
As I try to cover up the naked ache to belong
To a time before footnotes.