Queen and Ireland

Author: Eoghan Fay

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As news broke on Sept. 8 of Her Majesty the queen’s death, the eyes of some of those I know fell on me. Perhaps, being Irish, some of my American peers expected me to celebrate the demise of Britain’s longest-reigning monarch. In reality, Ireland’s relationship with Queen Elizabeth II was complicated, but no cheers greeted her death among the overwhelming majority of Irish people. On Sky News’ online public tribute page to the queen, for example, numerous Irish people left messages of gratitude to Her Majesty. As neighbors go, few share as painful and bitter a past as the United Kingdom and Ireland. After all, Ireland only won independence from British rule in 1921, and memories of the bloody “Troubles” in Northern Ireland endure. Enmity, stretching back to 1169, dominated Anglo-Irish relations until quite recently. The Crown seemingly epitomized all things British, including the country’s dark legacy in Ireland. Elizabeth II, however, proved crucial to normalizing our countries’ relations and nurturing the process of reconciliation between the two islands. As John Hume, architect of peace in Northern Ireland, said, “The trouble with the English is that they never remember, and the trouble with the Irish is that they never forget.” Her Majesty the queen, nevertheless, undertook enormously symbolic work to bridge the divide between those polar positions. With tact, delicacy and sincerity, the queen helped bury the phantoms of our shared traumatic past.

Against a seven-century backdrop of violence and death, on May 17, 2011, a small BAe-146 jet of the Royal Air Force landed at the Irish Air Corps’ Baldonnel Aerodrome. On board was Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, the first British monarch to visit Ireland since her grandfather a century prior. This visit was also the first by the Crown to the independent Irish Republic. Unlike George V, however, who came as a patriarchal sovereign to his distant subjects, Elizabeth II came to Ireland as a contrite neighbor to soothe the pains of history. Her Majesty’s visit, while long anticipated, was, unsurprisingly, not universally welcomed in Ireland. In 2009, amid rumors of the upcoming visit, one letter to the editor of the Irish Examiner decried the proposal as “inappropriate and unwelcome.” The presence of the British Crown on Irish soil touched many raw nerves in the nation, not only dating back to the struggle for independence, but to the preceding centuries of invasion, plantation, dispossession, forced reformation, emigration and starvation. From the beginning, however, Elizabeth II set out to demonstrate her reconciliatory bona fides.

Whisked from Baldonnel by car, the queen was received by President Mary McAleese at her official residence in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, Áras an Uachtaráin. After the formalities of a presidential welcome, the two heads of state journeyed to the Garden of Remembrance in central Dublin. Opened in 1966, fifty years after the 1916 Easter Rising, by then-President Éamon de Valera (himself a veteran of the Rising), the Garden of Remembrance commemorates all those who died for Irish freedom across the centuries. The queen laid a wreath before the central sculpture of the Children of Lir, and then bowed her head. Even at the age of 10, I understood the significance of that brief quiet moment. The British monarch, the heir to successive kings and queens who witnessed the oppression of Ireland unfold under their scepters, showed reverence and respect towards the men and women who fought to end British rule in Ireland. A small group of hardline republicans protested several streets away from the Garden of Remembrance, seeking to make their opposition to the royal visit known. Their shouts, however, have been drowned out in the pages of recorded history by the queen’s silence. That simple royal bow proved perhaps to be the most consequential symbol in Anglo-Irish relations since the Crown relinquished Dublin Castle to the Irish Provisional Government 90 years earlier.

From that point, the state visit went from strength to strength. The following day, the queen and the Duke of Edinburgh visited Croke Park stadium — the sporting cathedral of Ireland’s indigenous Gaelic games: hurling and Gaelic football. Croke Park is also a significant site in the Irish War of Independence. On November 21, 1920, during a Gaelic football match, British forces stormed the stadium and fatally shot fourteen civilians. Among the dead was Michael Hogan, a player for the County Tipperary team. In his memory, the Gaelic Athletic Association (G.A.A.) named one of the stands in Croke Park the “Hogan Stand.” On May 18, 2011, the queen was photographed in front of the Hogan Stand, together with President McAleese and G.A.A. President Christy Cooney. Later that same evening, President McAleese hosted Her Majesty at a state banquet in Dublin Castle, the former seat of British governance in Ireland. Delivering the customary speech, Queen Elizabeth II opened with a phrase of Irish: “A Uachtaráin, agus a chairde” (“Madam President and friends”). The decision to include some Irish — a language long suppressed by Britain — came from the queen herself, unbeknownst to President McAleese and the Irish Diplomatic Service. The President later recalled that even one sentence of Irish from the British Sovereign “set to rest so much historical angst and resentment.” The third day of the royal visit saw the queen host a theatrical, musical and sartorial pageant at Dublin’s Convention Centre for President McAleese and 2,000 invited guests. The audience at the event showcasing “the best of Irish” greeted the monarch with a rapturous standing ovation. Her Majesty’s charm, tact and quiet respectability had won over people once regarded as her country’s most bitter enemies.

One could easily dismiss the queen’s words and actions in Ireland merely as an extension of her well-documented sense of duty. As a constitutional monarch, she had to visit the country because her government deemed it in Britain’s interests. Still, one ought not to forget Her Majesty’s own painful history with Ireland and Irish extremism. The terrorist organization, the Irish Republican Army (I.R.A.) staged a botched effort to kill Elizabeth II during “The Troubles” on the Scottish island of Shetland in 1981. The same group also made attempts on the lives of two of the queen’s prime ministers: Margaret Thatcher and John Major. The Hyde Park and Regent’s Park bombings of 1982 in London left eleven members of Her Majesty’s Household Cavalry dead. Above all, the I.R.A. succeeded in bringing the horrors of “The Troubles” home to the royal family by murdering Lord Louis Mountbatten, the queen’s cousin, by bombing his boat in County Sligo on August 27, 1979. The pain of decades of violence lay on both sides of the Irish Sea. As such, took great personal strength and Elizabeth II’s personal openness to reconciliation and peace-building to bring Her Majesty to Dublin in 2011.

The crown was the only institution that could lend true credence to reconciliation. The queen was a constant figure in British public life from 1952 until her death this year. She was, for all intents and purposes, the living embodiment of the United Kingdom. Foreign secretaries are, to everyone other than die-hard politicos, an irrelevance. Prime ministers are transitory and rarely, if ever, capture the British national imagination. Undoubtedly, British elected officials have played and continued to play a significant role in reconciliation with Ireland. David Cameron’s apology for 1972’s Bloody Sunday in Derry, for example, helped atone for the wrongs of the past. Nevertheless, only the queen, the head of state, commanded sufficient respect and attention and wielded enough gravitas to give weight to the healing process. After all, Elizabeth II was synonymous with Britain. When one thought of the United Kingdom, one thought of the queen. Would a prime minister’s bow in the Garden of Remembrance have been appreciated? Yes. Yet, it would not have been as powerful a demonstration of goodwill as the queen’s. Much as only Nixon could go to China, only Elizabeth II could go to Ireland.

Naturally, one royal visit did not present normalization of Anglo-Irish relations as a fait accompli. When Her Majesty left Ireland in 2011, much work remained to be done. Sinn Féin, once the political wing of the I.R.A., refused to meet the queen during her visit. The one exception was Michael Browne, Sinn Féin member and mayor of the small town of Cashel, who shook the queen’s hand when she stopped in his town. Realizing the political miscalculation of the boycott following the warm Irish reception for Her Majesty, Sinn Féin soon changed tack. In 2012, when the queen went to Belfast, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, met with Her Majesty. McGuinness had been highly involved with the I.R.A. during “The Troubles,” including as deputy I.R.A. chief in Derry on Bloody Sunday in 1972. In another highly significant moment, the British monarch and the former I.R.A. commander shook hands. McGuinness later described the meeting as a chance “to extend a hand of friendship, peace and reconciliation.” The pair, seemingly born to be enemies, developed a cordial, even friendly rapport. At one subsequent meeting, Elizabeth II quipped to the deputy first minister “well, I’m still alive” in response to his asking how she was. Just ten years prior, such a relationship seemed unimaginable, confined to the realm of the most intractable dreamers. The queen and the gunman, once the representation of each other’s loathing, shook hands.

Having been born in 2001, I belong to the first generation in Ireland to grow up in an era of peace on the island. Naturally, one cannot, nor should not, forget the past. The names of those men and women who shed their blood for my country to govern itself continue to be respected and revered by my generation. Still, one must not be consumed by the past. I am glad that Irish people my age can look across the Irish Sea towards Britain without sheer hatred in their eyes. Ill-informed comments about Ireland on British media still cause us to bristle. We still gladly cheer for anyone and everyone to beat the English soccer team. We will forever be proud to be Irish and Irish alone, and not “west British.” The days, however, when the British and Irish were sworn enemies, thankfully, have passed. This peace between two neighbors results from many factors: the courageous vision of peacemakers, the determination of countless officials, and simple exhaustion on both sides after so many years of killing and resentment. Mending and normalizing relations between Britain and Ireland after such a traumatic past was never going to be an easy undertaking. The personal and delicate diplomacy of Queen Elizabeth II, undoubtedly, proved enormously helpful to that process. She, the quintessence of Britain, came to Ireland and sincerely demonstrated her commitment to peace. Elizabeth II never gave any military orders, made no political directives nor signed any treaties. Still, as the living symbol of the United Kingdom, the queen played a vital role in laying to rest the ghosts of history. Brexit, of course, has strained relations between London and Dublin and called into question the constitutional position of Northern Ireland. Nobody, however, seeks a return to the dark days of the bullet and the bomb. Partly due to Her Majesty, those who were once blood enemies are now, in the queen’s own words, “firm friends and equal partners.” For the queen’s powerful contribution to conciliation, Irish people remain grateful.

The recent death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II allowed for much stocktaking across Ireland on her role in normalizing Anglo-Irish relations. After his mother died, King Charles III traveled to Northern Ireland. There he met with Sinn Féin vice president and first minister-designate of Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill. In a statement, O’Neill praised the late queen who “led by example” in reconciliation. The president of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, and our taoiseach (prime minister), Micheál Martin, journeyed to London for the queen’s state funeral. The lord mayor of Dublin, and those of various other towns and cities across Ireland, opened and signed books of condolence after Elizabeth II’s death. These actions are just gestures, but gestures matter. Throughout her seventy-year reign, symbolism dominated the queen’s life. In few places was such symbolism more apparent or consequential than her visit to Ireland. A life begun just five years after the vicious Irish War of Independence passed with genuine peace and strong relations between the two islands. Like the rest of the world, Ireland marked the passing of the woman who seemed permanent in life. Once unthinkable in my grandparents’ day, the Irish green, white and orange tricolour flew at half-mast on government buildings after Her Majesty’s death. The flag that once rallied Irishmen to fight against the crown now mourned the death of a British monarch, a final gesture to the queen of reconciliation