Apart from a few extreme Republican trolls, Queen Elizabeth is being mourned in Ireland, north and south
Published: 9 September 2022
In Northern Ireland, she is deeply appreciated for the risks she took in her 25 visits, many of them made in terrible times. In 1979, the IRA blew up Prince Philip’s uncle, Lord Mountbatten, but though the threats continued, the royals kept coming.
Although, as major targets, she and her family were restricted to relatively safe areas, the Queen made her visits as normal as possible, talked to everyone at garden parties, honoured the security forces, and took every opportunity to try to cross political barricades. Even when unionists have felt betrayed by British governments, they have always recognised and appreciated the Queen’s constancy.
The leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Doug Beattie, speaking of the massive changes in “the second Elizabethan Age”, saw the Queen as “a constant and reassuring presence in the lives of the people of the United Kingdom providing both stability and continuity… the sense of loss today is profound”.
Meanwhile, in the Republic, although resentment over Brexit might have led to a revived Anglophobia, Queen Elizabeth lost none of the affection and respect she had earned during her historic visit in 2011.
The diplomats had done a fine job in preparing the ground, but the Queen had shown her emotional intelligence in every nuance of style, language and behaviour. Sinn Féin opposed the visit of “Elizabeth Windsor” on the grounds that, at best, it was premature. They ended up looking like children with their noses pressed to the window of a sweetie shop. It was a case study in how to get a royal visit right.
First, there was the wardrobe designed by Angela Kelly, the Queen’s Dresser from 1994, who had been a key figure in the planning of the four-day visit. The media were thrilled when the Queen descended from her plane swathed in emerald green, but they were beyond ecstatic with the white silk crêpe dress for the state banquet, which was embroidered with 2,091 handstitched shamrocks, set off with a crystal brooch on her left shoulder in the shape of an Irish harp.
Then there was the risky Irish language opener for the speech, “A Uachtaráin agus a chairde” (President and friends), which the Queen pronounced so accurately as to cause her host, President Mary McAleese, a nationalist from Northern Ireland, inelegantly to mouth, “Wow, wow, wow”. It’s a difficult language which few Irish speak, so Her Majesty earned respect for having taken such trouble.
Many commentators, including me, were unhappy that she had been required to lay a wreath in Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance and give a slight bow to “all those who gave their lives in the cause of Irish freedom,” considering how many people so described had murdered her subjects.
In retrospect, however, it was a good decision, because it gave her the moral high ground when it came to the subtle banquet address (written by Buckingham Palace, No 10 and the Foreign Office) where, rather than adopting the Irish-as-victims-of-the-Crown interpretation so favoured by the Left, she mourned the dead and spoke of “the complexity of our history – its many layers and traditions – but also the importance of forbearance and conciliation. Of being able to bow to the past but not be bound by it.”
Oft-repeated since is her line: “With the benefit of historical hindsight, we can all see things which we would have wished had been done differently – or not at all.” A subsequent poll in Ireland gave her an approval rating of more than 90 per cent.
In 2012, Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin, a former IRA leader, lined up to shake her hand in Belfast. In 2014, he wore a white tie to her state banquet in Windsor for President Michael D. Higgins. Higgins – who was distraught by the death of Fidel Castro and struggled to find a good word to say about Margaret Thatcher – is an intolerant republican activist who recently caused deep offence by refusing an invitation to attend a church service to mark, not celebrate, Northern Ireland’s centenary.
But he bonded with the Queen over horse racing and had nothing but praise for her “exceptional” ability to combine a sense of formality with “a great capacity for connection with the people”. She had, he said, been insistent that progress made in relation to Anglo-Irish ties must be maintained.
“Charles”, he added, “who I’ve had many meetings with and many many conversations, and was very interested in keeping these special relationships between our people going, I want to wish him every success.” One up to King Charles III, then. He has brains and courage and should do just fine.