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British-Irish relations: A royal stamp of approval

Queen Elizabeth II's trip to Ireland this week showcased a remarkable rapprochement between Britain and a nation that was once its colonial possession.

May 21, 2011

The visit by Queen Elizabeth II to Ireland this week — the first by a British monarch in a century — was rich in symbolism, as when she placed a wreath at a garden dedicated to Irishmen who fought to free their homeland from British rule. But the symbolism reflected the substance of a remarkable and long-established rapprochement between Britain and a nation that was once its colonial possession.

The relationship between Britain and the Irish Republic has been most evident in their cooperation toward resolving the conflict in Northern Ireland, but it also figures in close economic ties under the aegis of the European Union and in a common culture.

Mutual distrust between Britain and Ireland had many causes: long memories in Ireland of British oppression, resentment over the mistreatment of Catholics in British-ruled Northern Ireland and, on the British side, Ireland's decision to remain neutral in World War II. But these grievances obscured the fact that Britain and Ireland were linked by culture, language and population flow. In the realms of literature and popular entertainment, for example, the two countries are virtually one society.

Perhaps the most notable example of British-Irish cooperation — one that dates back to the late 1970s — is the attempt to establish political arrangements in Northern Ireland that would end terrorist violence, give a meaningful voice to the Catholic minority that favored British withdrawal and a united Ireland, and to mollify Protestant unionists, who wanted to retain a connection with Britain. Ironically, Protestants who saw themselves as safeguarding a British identity resisted efforts by Britain to ameliorate the condition of Catholics and establish a power-sharing government. It wasn't until the Good Friday agreement in 1998 that these efforts bore fruit, but peace in Northern Ireland was a common cause for Britain and Ireland long before that.

The closeness of the British-Irish relationship is a reminder of the diminishing importance of national independence in the 21st century. From Ireland to the Palestinian territories to Scotland (where nationalist sentiment is on the rise), independence remains a rallying cry. But as a practical matter, especially in Europe but also in North America, the trend is toward interdependence and more open borders. Queen Elizabeth may have been consecrating Irish independence during her visit, but its larger lesson was how much Britain and Ireland have in common.

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