15 May 2011
Ireland prepares for what was recently unthinkable - welcoming a British queen
It would have been unthinkable just 20 years ago - but a recent poll showed 77 per cent of Irish people welcome the visit of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip this week.
The four-day visit, which begins on Tuesday, carries different meanings to its many audiences. To the British and Irish governments, the visit is a ground-breaking symbol of the normalisation of Anglo-Irish relations; to Ireland's desperate tourist industry, it is a beacon of hope; and to most Irish people, it is a heartening sign of Irish political maturity that a full century after the successful visit of King George V and Queen Mary, Ireland is at last ready for another royal visit.
To the many who feel they know and like the royal family, and who will have greatly enjoyed the recent wedding, and to those who get a buzz out of celebrities, it is a welcome excitement at a depressing time; to Sinn Fein, it is a knotty political problem; to dissident republicans like socialist Éirigí and all the other sour irreconcilables, it is an insult; and to the security forces, it is a nightmare.
The two governments - both grappling with economic crises want a closer partnership, and it is highly significant that the Prime Minister, David Cameron, will go to Dublin to attend the State Dinner. In recent months Ireland's doughtiest supporter in its struggles with EU bullies has been the Cameron government, and only partly because of the heavy exposure of British banks to toxic Irish counterparts: George Osborne is seen as a sensitive friend.
In a recent article which read like a draft for the speech the Queen will give in Dublin, the British Ambassador reminded us that six million people in the UK have an Irish parent or grandparent and described Britain and Ireland as "outward-looking, export-orientated, trading economies" committed to bridge-building and strengthening the already close trade, technology and cultural links.
The itinerary reflects these priorities and those of the tourist industry.
So in Dublin the Queen will admire the eight-century illuminated Book of Kells in Trinity College, be shepherded round the Guinness Storehouse, a fermentation-plant-turned-tourist-attraction remodelled to resemble a giant pint of Guinness, and attend a celebration at the Dublin Convention Centre featuring Irish fashion, music and theatre.
In Kildare, she will talk horses at the Irish National Stud; in Tipperary she will see the spectacular medieval buildings on the Rock of Cashel; and in Cork she will visit the food-stalls at the huge eighteenth-century English Market, as well as the Tyndall National Institute, a distinguished research centre for commercialising technology. Tourism Ireland is ecstatic, predicting that television coverage will give millions worldwide a positive image of a beautiful, go-ahead, hospitable country.
So far so good, but anxious diplomats and politicians have also had had to address the historical and political peculiarities of the Anglo-Irish relationship. So we will have the bizarre sight of the Queen laying a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin which is dedicated to "all those who gave their lives in the cause of Irish Freedom" from 1798 to 1921. And at the Irish National War Memorial Garden, she will lay a wreath to the 50,000 Irish soldiers who died in the Great War and whose memories were vilified until recently. So in addition to honouring those who helped prevent a German victory, she will be honouring generations of self-appointed revolutionaries dedicated to getting her forefathers out of Ireland in 1916, with the help of the German state.
She will have to acknowledge only those "freedom fighters" approved of by the present Irish state. Their successors in later generations - who like them murdered policemen, set off bombs and destroyed the economy - are classified as terrorists.
This is a major contradiction to which no Irish government has yet faced up. If they continue to confer restrospective legitimacy on, say, the tiny unrepresentative group who launched an insurrection in 1916 that brought years of devastation to Ireland, why are the tiny unrepresentative groups that emulate them to be condemned?
Which is where Sinn Fein comes in. The British would be overjoyed if the people of Northern Ireland voted for a United Ireland and the Irish would be horrified: it is the same paradox we see with the English, not the Scots, wanting independence for Scotland. However, both can agree that they want Northern Ireland pacified, prosperous and causing as little trouble as possible.
This has posed a problem for Gerry Adams, now leader of Sinn Fein in the Irish Dail and unsure of how the Republic ticks. At first he said the visit was inadvisable and premature, but then found it was popular, toned down criticism and called for peaceful protests.
On Friday he gave a long-winded, rambling and slightly conciliatory interview explaining that he would not be attending any functions or protests but instead would be peacefully celebrating republicanism; as an anti-elitist he could have nothing to do with monarchs. The Queen, he felt had "legacy issues" about the British role in Northern Ireland. (As I said on the programme on which this was aired, considering he ran the IRA when it murdered her husband's uncle, I thought he might have a few to address as well.)
Then on Friday evening, he issued an extraordinary statement hoping that the visit would improve relations between the two islands, which "will be a matter of considerable pleasure, not just for her Majesty, but for the rest of us as well". "Her Majesty?" She used to be "Elizabeth Windsor" and a legitimate target.
As far as the so-called Republican dissidents are concerned, she still is, and though they are few in number, they are succeeding in creating plenty of trouble. In Dublin last week, while almost everyone I met was delighted about the visit, there was a resigned acceptance that the tiny minority were managing to spoil things for the majority. There were strange sightings of frogmen climbing out of manholes to announce the all-clear and police sealing the lids.
Now, there is evidence of panic: Dublin is in lock-down, there will be massive disruption over four days, the public will be banned from any streets the Queen is visiting and all those she meets will be hand-picked. So don't expect waving crowds. Evidence that dissidents have been trying to buy missiles and rocket-launchers have caused the Irish government to agree to the presence of armed teams from the Metropolitan Police protecting both the royal couple and the prime minister.
The leader of Éirigí was on the radio with me, delightedly denouncing Ireland as a police state. (In a surreal twist, Ireland has a brief visit from President Obama the following week, large men in black with shades, ear-pieces and crew-cuts are casing the joint and the growing Muslim population is being checked out for extremists.)
The Queen's visit should be a triumph. Everyone's nightmare is that it could be a disaster.
Ruth Dudley Edwards