Royal visit to Ireland full of symbolism

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Enda Kenny, the prime minister of Ireland, has referred to Tuesday’s historic state visit to the republic by Queen Elizabeth as “a moment of healing”. Normally given to understatement, Mr Kenny is not overstating the significance of this (invited) return of British monarchy to Irish soil for the first time in 100 years, a century that saw the rebirth of Ireland.

George V, the present queen’s grandfather, was the last British monarch to visit Ireland, in 1911 when it was approaching the end of seven centuries of English colonial rule. That was also the year of the opulent Delhi Durbar, to celebrate the coronation of George V as emperor of India and of a vast and confident empire on which there was no intimation the sun would ever set.

This royal visit will cement Anglo-Irish relations that have improved beyond recognition in the years since the Good Friday agreement on Northern Ireland. But it will also be suffused with the symbolism of the turbulent past.

Her majesty will visit the Croke Park stadium, home of the Gaelic Athletic Association, where in 1920 crown forces burst into an Irish football game and shot dead 13 spectators and a player, in reprisal for the assassination that day of 14 British agents by a hit squad led by Michael Collins, IRA intelligence chief during the war of independence.

In republican lore, this was the original Bloody Sunday. Its successor, the British army’s killings of 14 unarmed protesters in the Derry Bogside in 1972 as the Northern Ireland “Troubles” got into full swing, was laid to rest last year by the Saville judicial inquiry.

That found the action unjustifiable, after which David Cameron, the UK prime minister who will also be in Ireland for the visit, immediately and unreservedly apologised.

As she moves about this landscape dripping with history, the queen will lay a wreath in the Garden of Remembrance in Parnell Square, dedicated to all those who gave their lives for Irish freedom in the procession of uprisings against colonial rule.

Yet she will also lay a wreath at the National War Memorial Gardens, commemorating the almost 50,000 Irish soldiers who died fighting for Britain and its allies in the first world war.

Only in recent years has Ireland come to terms with that heritage; while these gardens were opened by church leaders in 1988, they were only given the full imprimatur of the state at a commemoration of the Battle of the Somme in 2006.

In a sense, the ghosts of Croke Park were exorcised the year after that, when Ireland’s rugby team met England’s in the Six Nations championship. There was a nervous build-up to the very idea of God Save the Queen being sung at this hallowed turf, but both sets of supporters applauded each other’s anthems – and then a pumped-up Irish squad crushed England 43-13.

Indeed, as one senior Irish diplomat genially remarked this week, “we’ve now taken our cultural relations so far that we thrash you at cricket”, referring to Ireland’s shock defeat of England in the World Cup in March.

Relations are, indeed, close, maturing progressively after both countries entered the European Union in 1973. This helped Ireland get out from under the shadow of its former ruler and, even now, in the grip of a compounded banking and sovereign debt crisis, exceed it in per capita income.

According to the British embassy in Dublin, there are more than 40,000 Irish-born directors of UK companies, while Britain exports more to Ireland than it does to the Bric economies – Brazil, Russia, India and China – combined.

For all that, it took the success of the Good Friday agreement – a peace settlement underwritten by both states and voted on by Irish north and south and that for all its warts stands out as a diplomatic beacon – to set the seal on the past.

“This is about closing the door and moving on from the past”, said Eamon Gilmore, Irish minister for foreign affairs and deputy prime minister. “It’s about normalising the relationship.” The great extent to which this has already happened suggests the queen will be warmly received.

And unlike with Barack Obama, US president, who will be visiting later this month and whom two villages in County Offaly claim as a distant relative, the Irish will not be needing to look into her genealogy.

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