There may be a secret injunction that prevents the discussion of the following issue, or maybe people just feel uncomfortable even thinking about it, but it is time the silence was broken.
There is an old woman called Elizabeth – many people may have seen her still at work this week. Unlike many of us she cannot retire – like the Pope she will die in office. She is now 84 years old, but longevity in not unknown in her family – her mother lived to be 101. Nonetheless, the life expectancy for females in the region in which she lives is around 83. If you add a few years for good behaviour, and the best medical care that other people’s taxes can buy, she will certainly exceed the average – but by how many years?
When she dies – and she will – what will the impact be, particularly in Northern Ireland? For many people she is the only head of the British state that they have known – she started work when Stalin still ruled the Soviet Union, and has outlasted almost every other head of state in the world. She inherited her job in the aftermath of World War II, a time when Britain still had an empire and delusions of power.
The nationalist side of the north's population – certainly younger members – will not be greatly upset by her death. But the unionist side, especially the large numbers of old unionists who identify more closely with the glory days of empire, might see her death as the end of an era.
For many unionists she provides continuity with the past, and with a time when unionism was undoubtedly dominant. But 58 years on, much has changed – the empire is gone, and Britain is barely a middle-ranking European country. Northern Ireland, so unionist in 1952, is now more evenly balanced.
For many, the mere act of transfer – the famous ‘the king is dead, long live the king’ moment – will be revolutionary, and will cause them to stop and ask whether this is really the best model for the 21st century. At a time when the hereditary House of Lords is being seriously re-thought, can the questioning of a hereditary head of state be far behind?
No doubt some unionists will use the death of their Queen as an opportunity to try to promote their view of the world. Some will be genuinely upset – and the Princess Diana effect, where people experience some connection with a celebrity who they have never actually known, will no doubt reappear. Every unionist-controlled council will pass the obligatory obsequious motion of devoted loyalty, and they will try to brow-beat nationalists to join in. Nationalists, if they are polite, will express sympathy on the death of the British head of state, but will hopefully resist all the unionist attempts to drag them to their knees. Nationalist Ireland should let its President represent it, with all the pomp and formality that she wishes.
Elizabeth is a strictly formal figurehead who has never put a foot wrong, but her heir, Charles, is less revered by unionists, and for the more religious amongst them he is anathema thanks to his somewhat salacious private life. Paradoxically, he is probably more popular with nationalists that Elizabeth is – he can, and does, visit the south with no problem and is well received there.
Attempts to transfer the carefully constructed loyalty to Elizabeth to her son may not succeed, however – even amongst unionists. The death of Elizabeth may represent another irreversible step in Northern Ireland’s parting from Britain. Charles will not occupy the ‘sainted’ position that his mother currently occupies. The monarchy will become more head of state than god.
And if Charles cannot win the hearts of Northern Ireland’s unionists, then where will their loyalty lie? It is often said that they owe their loyalty to the crown as an institution rather than just a person. But if they do not respect the personification of that crown, how can they truly be loyal to it?