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22 April 2016

Queen's 90th Birthday: How the monarch won Irish hearts

From her historic visit to the Republic to that handshake with Martin McGuinness, Her Majesty has gone to extraordinary lengths to heal the rift between two neighbours. By Ruth Dudley Edwards

Britain's Queen Elizabeth shakes hands with Northern Ireland deputy first minister Martin McGuinness at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast.

Small, unassuming and humble, she would never have aspired to be president of a republic, but Elizabeth Windsor proved perfect for the job of queen.

She needed stamina, discretion, intelligence, tact, and, above all, patience and a sense of humour. How many of us could endure those endless hours of chatting to strangers at home and abroad and conveying an interest in another factory, another school, another parade, another row of regimental troops and so on and on? How many of us could so dutifully have accepted for the sake of the national interest playing host to dreadful people like the Romanian dictator?Nicolae Ceausescu. And how many could have smilingly offered the hand of friendship to people who had wanted her and her family dead.

The work ethic of the leading royals is remarkable. Last year the Queen carried out 306 engagements at home and 35 abroad, her husband (94) 217 and 33, Prince Charles (67) 380 and 147 and Princess Anne (65) 456 and 88. Fortitude is another requirement for members of the family firm and is a quality in which the Queen abounds. It was very necessary during the years of the Troubles when she routinely rejected advice to stay away from the province, or, indeed, to avoid certain events in Great Britain because of IRA threats. Her husband’s uncle, Lord Mountbatten, was assassinated by the IRA in 1979, there was a botched attempt to kill her in 1981, when a bomb was let off as she arrived in the Shetland Islands to open an oil terminal, and in 1983, an informer foiled a plot to murder Charles and Diana in a London theatre. Down the decades, and still, there have been innumerable threats, warnings and security alerts.

Coming first as a girl, Queen Elizabeth has made 24 visits to Northern Ireland; to unionists, a reassuring beacon of continuity and loyalty. She did much to give an impression of normality, moving freely among the people who want to see her and steadfastly showing her support for the security forces and all those bereaved, injured and traumatised by violence. She always had (mostly covert) admirers among Northern Irish nationalists, but latterly, more and more are going public. Nichola Mallon, who was SDLP Lord Mayor of Belfast during the June 2014 visit, was charmed by her lunch companion, not having realised until then that the Queen is witty and good company.

But one of her extraordinary achievements was to win the high regard of Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

Their handshake in June 2012 was the culmination of years of diplomatic effort and complex choreography. The Queen has visited 116 countries — many of them several times — and she felt it keenly that she had never been able to go to the Irish Republic because of historic sensitivities.

She played a key role in the development of a warm Anglo-Irish relationship at head-of-state level. President Mary Robinson was warmly welcomed when she visited her at Buckingham Palace in 1993 and there were several non-State meetings with Mary McAleese after she became president in 1997. At the highly symbolic first public event ever undertaken jointly by a British monarch and an Irish President, they jointly unveiled a round tower on the site of the battle of Messines Ridge in memory of the Irish dead of World War I and together inaugurated the Island of Ireland Peace Park.

The process process was chugging on, diplomats were hard at work and politicians were waiting for the right moment for the Queen to be invited to pay a state visit to Ireland. When it was announced in 2011 that she had responded favourably to an invitation from Mary McAleese, Sinn Fein were wrong-footed. Gerry Adams said he thought this was not “the right time for the English Queen” to visit, Martin McGuinnness called it “premature” and Sinn Fein boycotted the visit. They realised too late that they were out of tune with the mood of most of the increasingly cosmopolitan people of the Republic of Ireland, 77% of whom declared themselves delighted she was coming.

The visit was a triumph. The Irish were touched by the Queen’s obvious delight in being in Ireland and her sensitivity in, for instance, her choice of clothes. One evening dress featured more than 2,000 silk shamrocks sewn on by hand and an Irish harp design made of crystals. She also won hearts by uttering a few words of properly pronounced Irish. And there was the enormous significance of the respect she showed to the dead in the Garden of Remembrance, which is dedicated to “all those who gave their lives in the cause of Irish Freedom”. It was a tough moment for her, but it was a necessary courtesy. She showed no weakness, though, in her speech at Dublin Castle, with such lines as the importance of “being able to bow to the past, but not be bound by it”. Almost everyone could agree that “with the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all”.

Gerry Adams complained on radio that she should have apologised for Britain’s involvement in Irish affairs but the Irish public approval ratings were over 90%. So Sinn Fein hastily climbed on the royal bandwagon, and the stage was set for the handshake in Belfast the following year, which both she and Mr McGuinness carried out with grace. They’ve met twice more, once when he was her guest at a Windsor banquet, and he recently said he liked her.

The inclusive tone of the commemoration of the Easter Rising in Dublin was a striking indication of a close Anglo-Irish friendship that the Queen’s visit strengthened. However, as the recent murder of prison officer Adrian Ismay showed, the fanatics wanted to mark it with blood and its legacy is still potent. During the past few months, Irish schoolchildren have been taught about the rebellion in what was intended to be a nuanced way. A letter to the Queen from a 12-year-old Dubliner called Reese Kilbride asking her to return “the six counties”, suggests that his teacher had forgotten to tell the class about unionists, but it was encouragingly civil. Reese had enclosed drawings of himself and a friend.

His mother had warned him not to expect an answer, but one duly arrived from Deputy Correspondence Coordinator Jennie Vine to convey the Queen’s thanks “for your recent letter in which you wished to tell Her Majesty that you have been learning about the history of the Easter Rising 1916”.

“While it was thoughtful of you to let The Queen know of your views,” Ms Vine explained “this is not a matter in which Her Majesty would intervene”, for as “a constitutional Sovereign,” she “acts on the advice of her ministers and remains strictly non-political at all times”.

She conveyed the Queen’s thanks “for the pictures you drew especially for her”.

A lesson in courtesy, politics and diplomacy, this was a superb example of the style of a monarch who never let her position or her fame go to her head and who has spent her life making the world a better place. There will be many Irish nationalists, north and south, warmly wishing her well on her birthday.

Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic, was published by Oneworld Publications on March 22.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards