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Queen, Obama – what more could Ireland want?

May 24th, 2011

Well, maybe a complete turnaround in its economic situation, reflects Angela Long

Ireland, always a theatrical country, has been through a massive week of street theatre. Stars of the respective shows were Queen Elizabeth of Britain and President Barack Obama. Almost inevitably, this turned into a tale of two cities, for the old and the young.

And while the queen’s visit sealed a door and formally healed an ancient wound, Obama’s rousing speech in Dublin city centre spoke to the young and raised eyes to the future.

Queen Elizabeth arrived on May 17 – unfortunately, the 37th anniversary of British loyalist bombs in the Irish republic which killed 34 people in Dublin city and county Monaghan. This, it seemed, had not even been taken into account, and was swept under the carpet except for irritated protests by a few left-leaning journalists. The queen was met at carefully-selected venues (for the tourism market) to carefully-selected members of the establishment. Then her show rolled on, through empty streets. This street theatre was eerie; all members of the public were banned from getting near Her Majesty, so terrified were the authorities that even a tomato might land on the royal vehicle.

It was only when the queen, ‘towing her nearly 90-year-old husband’, as one commentator put it, got to Cork city that the authorities relaxed enough to let her meet some ordinary people.

But this was after the high point of the tour, Queen E’s speech at Dublin Castle, was done and dusted, and considered a great triumph. The queen spoke a few words of Irish, with perfect pronunciation, according to the experts. She also referred to the tortured past between the two countries, with the well-bred euphemism that it had ‘not always been benign’.

With over 3,000 killed through the latest episode of sustained violence, the ‘Troubles’ of 1969-1998, that’s a long way from benign.

Then the US president arrived, within days of the 85-year-old queen’s departure  (this is exciting stuff for a small country of 4 million people, off-off-shore Europe, with an ongoing identity crisis). He smiled his famous smile, as did his wife, pressed the flesh, drank a Guinness and said “Yes we can!” in Irish (‘is fe’idir linn’).

Many ‘significant’ Irish people met the queen, and some of these grandees were due to meet Obama on Monday night. But the Icelandic volcanoes put paid to his plans to spend the night in Ireland – he flew to London to avoid any potential closing of airspace because of this year’s ash cloud.

But underneath all the excitement, the pomp, the tiaras and the cheering crowds, was an inconvenient truth. Ireland is deep in recession, and for once there is nowhere to turn (except possibly Australia, for thousands of young people). Obama’s speech in College Green was high on encouragement – ‘your best days are still ahead’ – and referred to the US’s admittedly prolonged and profound efforts in securing a peace agreement in Northern Ireland. But the US president could offer little more in words, his own country facing a double-dip recession and an election campaign about to start.

Ireland can’t look to Europe, either, any more than it has already. The EU has contributed much of the €85 billion (Aus$113 bn)  bailout, co-ordinated with the International Monetary Fund, that started last November. But the 27-member union has other troubles, most recently Portugal seeking a bailout; the drumbeat that predicts a default by Greece is getting louder. Many doomsayers – some of them Irish, and well-informed – claim Ireland also has no option but to default, and sooner would be wiser than later. Meanwhile in mainland Europe, the prudent Germans, in particular, are annoyed that they should have to pay for the fecklessness of the Irish. And they don’t want to hand out any more.

In previous Irish recessions, young (and old) had to emigrate for work and a livelihood.  Destinations were Boston, Berlin, and Birmingham. Berlin might still be an option, but German is not widely taught in Irish schools. As for Birmingham – this was the unfortunate reality behind the queen’s visit, that England no longer can offer the succour it once did to thousands of Irish in search of work. Britain is suffering its own recession, and though that is nowhere near as bad as the Irish plight, it can’t offer the work it for so long extended to the Irish, professionals (for example architects and engineers) as well as the stereotypical building site worker. So Ireland, with 15 per cent unemployment, is stuck with the slogan of Sinn Fein, ‘ourselves alone’.

The lack of economic opportunity was an intangible sombre presence behind all the glad-handing and – it must be stressed – genuine good feeling. More obvious, because of its omission, was the complete lack of the Catholic church in any visible role. Ireland was once viewed as a priest-ridden country. Today, Dublin has an excellent archbishop in Diarmuid Martin, for many years a Vatican diplomat before he returned to his homeland to clean up the mess, in the views of someone close to the situation. But even Martin was absent from the big televised events, the greeting of Queen Elizabeth at the Irish president’s residence, the stageful of people (who on earth were they, we asked) behind Obama at his big College Green gig.

This is a sign of a massive change in Ireland, the removal of the Church as a pillar of everyday life, and the huge influence of nuns and priests. Ireland has become a secular society, especially in the cities, and that is where the power lies. Even as the news media reported Obama’s departure, another scandal, over sexual abuse by missionaries abroad, was breaking.

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