The Queen’s Death Brings Growing Hope for Irish Unification

We speak with journalist and activist Eamonn McCann about Queen Elizabeth II’s legacy in Ireland and the impact of her recent death on the prospects of Irish unification. This comes as King Charles III Tuesday was McCann’s national tour to Northern Ireland, which he made in honor of his mother. His reign saw more than 3,600 deaths in fighting between the Irish Republican Army forces and those backed by Britain over three decades. “There is a great confidence among nationalist and republican leaders in Northern Ireland that we are now moving inexorably towards a united Ireland,” says McCann, a former member of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be final.

AMY GOODMAN: As thousands of people line the streets of London to watch the procession carrying the casket of Queen Elizabeth II from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Hall, where her body will lie in state until her state funeral Monday, we begin today’s show looking at the monarch’s legacy in Ireland. King Charles III He was in Northern Ireland Tuesday as part his tour of sorrow following the death of his mother. He spoke in Hillsborough (Northern Ireland).

KING CHARLES III: My mother felt deeply, I believe, the importance of her role in bringing people together and helping to heal long-held wounds. The queen pledged at the beginning of her service to her country and her people to keep the principles of constitutional government. With steadfast faith, she kept that promise. Now, with that shining example before me, and with God’s help, I take up my new duties resolved to seek the welfare of all the inhabitants of Northern Ireland.

AMY GOODMAN: During the queen’s reign, more than 3,600 people died over three decades in Northern Ireland in fighting between the Irish Republican Army and forces backed by Britain. 1979 was the year that an estimated 3600 people died in fighting between the Irish Republican Army and forces backed by Britain. IRA bombing killed Lord Louis Mountbatten, the queen’s second cousin. The queen famously shook hands in 2012 with former lovers IRA leader and Sinn Féin politician Martin McGuinness in Belfast. Last week Sinn Féin leader Michelle O’Neill paid tribute to the queen.

MICHELLE O’NEILL: There’s no doubt that she leaves a legacy of someone who reached out the hand of friendship, someone who advanced peace and reconciliation, someone who sought to build relations between those of an Irish and those of a British identity. And I think that was sterling work and something that I think she’ll be very much remembered for here on this island.

AMY GOODMAN: This is King Charles. III visited Belfast Tuesday and met with members of Sinn Féin, which is now the largest party in Ireland after elections in May, where response to the queen’s death has been mixed.

For more, we’re joined by Eamonn McCann, journalist, writer, activist, in Derry, Northern Ireland. Eamonn was a former member the Northern Ireland Assembly. He was also a participant in the 1972 Bloody Sunday march and helped to form the Bloody Sunday Trust. His 1974 book. A town in Ireland that is at war with anotherThis article was recently republished.

Eamonn McCann, welcome back to Democracy Now! For people who aren’t familiar with the struggle, if you can lay out the history of the monarchy and Northern Ireland?

EAMONN McCANN: The history of the monarchy in Northern Ireland is somewhat mixed. I am referring to the fact that most unionists are overwhelmingly Protestant. The Protestant unionist community has traditionally worshiped the royal family, that’s been a symbol of their desire to be part of the United Kingdom rather than move into a united Ireland. The queen has been an icon for Britishness, a figurehead, if I may say, for them. Their fervor for Queen Elizabeth II, the Northern Ireland Protestant Unionists’ fervor, has been, if not more intense than that of most British citizens across the Atlantic.

And after the formation — after partition in Ireland in 1922, almost exactly 100 years ago, the royal family rehinted, or shared outright on some occasions, that they didn’t reciprocate the loyalty which Protestant unionists in Northern Ireland showed towards them. When the Northern Ireland Parliament, at the Stormont in Belfast — when the Stormont Parliament was opened in 1922, it was opened by George V. The monarch came across and spoke. And during that speech, he expressed a hope that there would be reconciliation between all factions in Ireland and that the disputes over sovereignty and the antagonism between Catholics and Protestants in the North — he expressed a hope, way back in 1922, that this could be erased.

And then, there’s many perspectives in which you can see the events of the last couple of days, but it is, I think, politically meaningful to look at it and say, “Well, there is that royal family project brought to fruition by — not by Queen Elizabeth, but by the death of Queen Elizabeth,” when, once again, the royal family is associating itself, to some extent — I wouldn’t exaggerate this, but is certainly associating itself with advocates for a united Ireland. And this is bound to cause, over the coming weeks and months, considerable confusion and dismay among the unionist population of the North and a certain, if there’s such a thing, ambivalent euphoria among Catholic nationalists, who will see, in effect, what they see as the endorsement of the campaign for a united Ireland by the British royal family as a major step towards a united Ireland and a way, sort of, of leaving the unionist population sort of in the past, in history.

Now, that’s a very initial judgment. Obviously, these gestures by Prince Charles — or, King Charles, sorry, I mean, have only come sort of in the last week, since the death of his mother, and we have to see how they play out. I would certainly say that Irish nationalists seem to be more happy with what is happening now than the loyal royalists. So, that’s a turnout for the books, if you like. Certainly, it’s a significant turning point sort of in attitudes in Northern Ireland and in both communities in Northern Ireland towards the monarchy. This could turn out to be very significant, or it could turn out to be a brief moment, sort of, which passes when it’s undermined by events over the — in the next near future.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Eamonn McCann, following —

EAMONN McCANN: [inaudible] — yeah, yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Eamonn McCann, following that up, the change in perspective and attitude of Sinn Féin toward the monarchy? I mean, clearly, from the bombing that killed Lord Mountbatten in 1979 to the handshake of Martin McGuinness in 2012 with the queen, and now with Michelle O’Neill, the current Sinn Féin leader, paying tribute to the queen, does this view of how the monarchy may be taking a position quite distinct from the elected leaders of the United Kingdom, part of the reason why Sinn Féin has taken such a much more open view toward the monarchy?

EAMONN McCANN: Yes, I think that’s true. And I think it’s — let me set the context for that. It’s important to understand that the majority people in Britain sort of have never actually felt a sense of kith and kin with the Northern unionists here. I spent seven years living in London. I worked as a labourer for seven years in London, so I wasn’t leaving elite circles. But I don’t think I ever met a single person who thought that a Northern Ireland was part of their country. They have no connection to the unionists of Northern Ireland. I recall one of my workmates sort of turning to me and saying, “Look, just explain to me: Which part of Ireland do we own?” And for a London laborer to ask you that tells you a great deal about the perception of English people towards the Protestant people of Northern Ireland. British people have never repaid the loyalty of loyalists from Northern Ireland. You can be sure that the historical records do not support the claim that British politicians were ever concerned about bringing Northern Ireland to them.

The unionists who believe that they are part the United Kingdom and have ferocious loyalty the British monarchy must be in a state sort of of confusion. And “fear” would be putting it too strongly, but certainly they are anxious about their future as British unionists in the future as we move to constitutional talks.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you about — James Connolly was an Irish republican socialist and trade union leader. Over a hundred years ago, back in 1911, he wrote a piece titled “The British Monarchy Is an Affront to Democracy.” What is your view in terms of the monarchy itself and the possibilities being raised now for the first time to consider ending the monarchy?

EAMONN McCANN: I believe that the debate about the monarchy and its viability and acceptance is now being discussed across Britain. And, of course, it’s very early days yet, but, of course, Queen Elizabeth for 70 years, I mean, was the only queen, the only head of the monarchy, that anybody in these islands had ever known. So her position wasn’t really an occasion for controversy. It was like wallpaper. It was there, and all events took place in front of it.

But it’s very doubtful, very doubtful indeed, whether King Charles, as you know, yes, King Charles IIIThat kind of more or less automatic loyalty to Britain’s population will never be achieved. Forget Northern Ireland and the Irish island. In Britain, I think it’s going to be more easy — more easy for anti-monarchists to make their case, because they won’t be dealing sort of with that uncritical reverence which was directed towards Queen Elizabeth.

And we’ve also got, at the moment, a sort of little hint of what might happen, even today. I mean, we’ve learned sort of that at the laying in state, or whatever the phrase is, of the queen’s body at Westminster Hall, we’re going to see Prince Harry — of course, who made the big mistake, as far as the royals are concerned, of marrying sort of an American divorcée of color, and she’s been frozen out, sort of, in general terms. But Prince Harry is not going to be wearing his military uniform as he stands at his grandmother’s casket, whereas Prince Andrew, a good friend of Jeffrey Epstein, and a man who in the eyes of the British people, as with most people around the world, is entirely discredited, you know, he’s going to be there, playing a prominent role. And it’s already been announced that he will fill in for King Charles III on some ceremonial occasions in future. So he hasn’t gone away, you know, Prince Andrew. It will be interesting for people to consider Prince Andrew’s presence and extravagantness when they discuss the royal family. He’s a big embarrassment to the royal family, although he hasn’t been frozen out in the way that Meghan Markle has and in the way that Prince Harry is beginning to be frozen out sort of by the British establishment. We are in for some interesting times. We’ll have to see how all that works out.

AMY GOODMAN: Just to be clear, Meghan Markle, who leveled charges of racism against the royal family, and —


AMY GOODMAN: — Prince Andrew, who paid out a multimillion-dollar settlement in a sexual assault case involving himself —

EAMONN McCANN: Yes, 12, 12 —

AMY GOODMAN: — related to Jeffrey Epstein.

EAMONN McCANN: Yes, and it should be remembered that, you know, Prince Andrew, like the rest of the royals, doesn’t really have money of his own. The royal estate paid that amount, his mother. And the total sum that — given to Andrew to pay off his accusers and get him off the hook for being an associate and a co-participant with Jeffrey Epstein in various sort of sordid and discreditable episodes — 12 million pounds of British taxpayers’ money was paid to get Prince Andrew off the hook for all that.

Now, we’ll see, when Prince Andrew appears sort of in his royal regalia and his military uniform, dripping with medals and regimental colors — when he appears at Westminster Abbey with that, I think it will tinge sort of the majesty of the event, the majesty of the royal funeral. Already we’ve heard sort of people shouting sort of from crowds, in Britain, at Prince Andrew as the royal procession has — sort of pays from one place to another sort of over the last few days, and people shouting “nonce” at him, and “Get out of it!” So, that’s going to be interesting. But, of course, the queen stood by Andrew — she never publicly endorsed what he had done, but stood by him and had him to Buckingham Palace and all that. But it’s a bit early to write the history, sort of, of how that will affect the standing of the monarchy generally in Britain. But it’s going to be one to watch.

AMY GOODMAN: Talking of money, Prince William (if there is such a thing), has just inherited the Duchy of Cornwall, a billion-dollar estate. The 140,000-acre estate includes land and property, most of which is in southwest England. Eamonn: I was curious to know more about 1972, Bloody Sunday and the relationship between Britain, Northern Ireland. You were there.

EAMONN McCANN: I was there. And, I mean, briefly, at the end —

AMY GOODMAN: Describe what happened.

EAMONN McCANN: There was a civil rights march that took place in Derry on January 30th 1972. Around 10,000 people participated. They marched against the military presence of Northern Ireland and specifically for human rights. It was a civil right march. It wasn’t a republican march. It enjoyed broad support.

It came to the Bogside, which is a Catholic working class area that is overwhelmingly nationalist, at the end. As the march arrived and was preparing for a meeting Bernadette devlin, whose name may ring a bell to some people who are paying attention, was about to speak to people when we heard the crackling of rifles from 150 yards away at Russell Street. It was something I vividly remember. I, along with thousands of others, took a few seconds to realize that British soldiers were firing at us. The Parachute Regiment of members of the 2nd — sorry, 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment had come in behind the march as they came into the Bogside, and people stopped and assembled to hear a public meeting to be addressed by Bernadette Devlin and others. 13 people were also killed. Another 13 people were also hurt.

That was carried out — that massacre was carried out, as I say, by members of the Parachute Regiment, of which, as he then was the Prince of Wales, i.e. King Charles III — he was the commander-in-chief of that regiment. So, when republicans now move to make peace, and they met with King Charles yesterday on very friendly terms and so forth, that’s in sort of savage contradiction to the role, sort of, of the monarchy, or the troops operating under the monarch’s name, the role that they had played back then. So, there has been a seismic and very dramatic change sort of in the way republicans, for example, in the Sinn Féin party are willing to see the British monarchy and relations with Britain generally.

Just 10 years ago — stop me if I’m going on too long, sort of, in these answers, Amy. It’s just 10 [ sic]Years ago, the queen mother died. The mother of Queen Elizabeth 2. When she died, the leader of the moderate nationalist party, Sinn Féin’s moderate rivals, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, they expressed condolences. And the denunciation of them by Sinn Féin was ferocious to listen to it, and made many members of the SDLP To wilt. Its name is the Social Democratic and Labour Party. SDLPPlacards with the slogan “It’s a good idea” were displayed on gable walls. Sinn Féin turned it into SDLP, the “Stoop Down Low Party” — for doing what Sinn Féin has done over this last few days.

So, you know, that’s for complicated and subtle reasons, you know, if you want me to go into. It’s sort of historical reasons. I’ll just put this in. In the history of Northern Ireland, not just during the Troubles, has the majority Catholic nationalists in Northern Ireland ever supported republican-armed struggle at any time. I know the armed struggle, because it is dramatic, and people are killed, and there’s lots of coverage and all the rest of it, you know, is sort of much more newsworthy than the dull, plodding business of ordinary, bourgeois politics. Many people stood with the soldiers in the armed struggle. IRA, Sinn Féin’s military wing at that time. Many people supported them because they were nationalists. Many people supported the armed struggle through their gritted teeth. There was never a majority support from Catholic nationalists in Northern Ireland for any strategy of violence to bring about a united Ireland.

So, in a way, when we talk about the adaptations that Sinn Féin has made, the contribution to the peace process, and the adaptations that they have made in that context, I mean, to that issue, to the British royal family, you see, keep in mind that this isn’t such a — in terms of abandoning the armed struggle and so forth, to an objective observer, this is something which has been sort of in the making, beginning to happen, sort of, over a long number of years. This has been the culmination. This has been the ceremonial confirmation of that relationship between the leadership of Sinn Féin and the British establishment generally.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Eamonn, in terms of the evolution of the movement to free Northern Ireland, to reunite with Ireland, what do you see are the prospects now, especially now with the changes in the monarchy, with the Brexit — with the Brexit vote, that has made more difficulties with the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland being within the United Kingdom — what are the prospects that you see for the North reuniting with the Irish Republic?

EAMONN McCANN: Well, the honest answer is that I don’t know. And what’s more, neither does anybody else. I mean, there is a lot of confidence among republican and nationalist leaders in Northern Ireland that we are moving inexorably towards a unified Ireland and the redrawing all the constitutional boundaries on the island. If you’re asking me personally, I dissent from that. I don’t believe that it’s going to be that smooth at all. I don’t think, if you look.

The Irish tend to look at history and look at their own situation in terms of a long history that goes back hundreds of centuries. I heard a nationalist politician talking a few months ago, when somebody said about the Troubles starting, and he responded from the platform, “The Troubles started when Cromwell landed.” You know, a lot of people see it like that, you know? How well relations between Catholics and Protestants, the nationalists and the unionists here, in Northern Ireland, will play a significant role in determining whether a united Ireland is achieved.

One thing we can say, that the idea of using armed struggle, using violence, or to coerce the Protestant in the North into a united Ireland, that’s gone. That’s not going to happen anymore. Those who had been advocating it and executing it have realized it was impossible and have switched to constitutional politics. And what’s happened in the last couple of days is confirmation of the strategy, a formalization, sort of, of that attitude. And we’ll have to see what happens.

There’s a number of things to keep in mind, but one of them is, that I just mentioned, this one, as I may have said at the beginning, that people in England, Scotland and Wales, including the political leaders of Britain, including the Conservative Party, whether very right-wing and patriotic and the rest of it, they do not regard any part or any section of the Northern Irish people as an integral element, sort of, in British citizenship. And that’s going to be very difficult as that becomes — it has already, over the last couple of days, become more clear, been spelt out for people, how the unionist population, a unionist state — there are sort of intransigent unionists, as there are intransigent everything. It remains to see if they will change their attitude. I doubt it. I doubt it. But let’s wait and see.

AMY GOODMAN: Eamonn Mccann, we thank you so much. We are a journalist and activist in Derry. Eamonn was a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1972. She also participated in the Bloody Sunday March in 1972. She helped to found the Bloody Sunday Trust, which is the author of the recently republished novel. A town in Ireland that is at war with another.

Next, The Storm Is Here: A American Crucible. We’ll speak with The New Yorker’s award-winning war correspondent Luke Mogelson. He’s been in Afghanistan, in Syria and Iraq, but he’s talking about the war at home as he writes about right-wing extremism and the 2020 election.