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When Irish Men Forget the Past

Prostrating for Peace at the Palace

by EAMONN McCANN

 “Oh Irish men forget the past

And think of the day that’s coming fast

When we will all be civilisedNeat and clean and well-advised

Won’t Mother England be surprised

Whack fol the diddle all the di do day.”

The day dawned last week at Windsor Castle and thank god we didn’t let ourselves down. Spick and span and all at ease in the knowledge that anybody who sniggered at the sight of us would instantly be anathematised as a backwoodsperson and an opponent of peace. The thought surely popped into others’ minds, too – Why don’t we break entirely with the attitudes of the olden days and get down on our knees?

Is there anywhere else on earth where splicing a quail’s egg with the queen can be seen as a symbol of leaving quaint habits behind? There are places, of course, where she is regarded as the newsworthy head of a celebrity family or a tourist attraction or a harmless reminder of an imagined past. But a banquet in the gilded surrounding of Windsor Castle as a cutting-edge event? Dear god.

There is an island in the south Pacific whose people adhere to a cargo cult and – so it’s said – regard the Queen’s husband as a god. We are not there yet, but it’s early days.

As gush and mush engulfed the land last week, Professor Roy Foster surfaced to give us his expert opinion that relations between the British and Irish ruling classes were now so intimate as to be “nearly as good as sex”. What sad, limited lives some of these academics lead.

Bull-headed Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary found himself in a spot of bother a couple of weeks back for making a joke about having sex with the Queen. How offensive! spluttered specialists in etiquette. But some of us found the remark among the least offensive of Mr. O’Leary’s oeuvre, certainly less offensive than Professor Foster’s sleveen intervention. A matter of taste, I suppose.

Actually, the professor didn’t use the phrase as “ruling class”. Far too old-fashioned when dealing with the modern, progressive, peace-making House of Windsor.

The propaganda which came pulsing through the media for the duration of the visit told that the meeting between the Queen and President Higgins and Martin McGuinness will have facilitated reconciliation between the British and Irish people. But the vast majority of us have no need of the Queen’s involvement to achieve reconciliation with our British neighbours. Like many others once corralled within the Empire, we have long managed to combine a distaste for imperial power with congenial friendship towards the British people.

Cementing relations between the peoples of these islands is not what the “monstrous stupidity” was about. It was about the Irish elite celebrating their acceptance into a layer of society they have long wanted to be part of. For them, the significance of the peace process is that it has liberated them from any need to pretend dislike for the flummery and pomp which deep down – not all that deep, as a matter of fact – they have envied and always aspired to. In this sense at least, the feast in the castle was truly historic.

One lesson to be learnt from “the hideous, revolting and vulgar tomfoolery” (English republican William Morris again) is that nationalists, irrespective of how long they fight or at what cost, are merely applying for membership of the club. It is well to recall that Sinn Fein founder Arthur Griffith thought it demeaning to the nation that while Britain, France, Germany etc., had colonial possessions to plunder, distressful Ireland remained empty-handed.

It has been an implicit demand of nationalism down the decades that Irish people should not be exploited by foreigners when they are Irish people available to do the job themselves, a perspective summed up in the phrase – which de Valera never said, but should have – that “labour must wait.”

Which brings us to the threat of a Royal presence at ceremonies marking the centenary of the Easter Rising. It’s said Prince Charles will be the Family’s representative. Would it be practical for McNamara’s Band to make a comeback for the occasion? McCarthy on the old bassoon while Doyle the pipes will play? Hennessy Tennessee tootling the flute?  They might greet the commander-in-chief of the Parachute Regiment as he waves his way along O’Connell Street with a rousing rendition of “See The Conquering Hero Come”. Makes your heart swell just to think on it.

Rejecting the pleas of Dublin business people and parliamentary leaders in 1911 that all should welcome George V so as to consolidate the prospect of Home Rule, James Connolly observed that the British royal family “has been notorious in history for the revolting nature of its crimes, murder, treachery, adultery, incest, theft, perjury -every crime known to man.”

Wouldn’t get away with saying the like of that these days, would he>? Whack fol the diddle all the di do day.”

Eamonn McCann can be reached at Eamonderry@aol.com