As she emerged from her airplane resplendent in an emerald coat, smiling as she walked down the stairs into public view, Queen Elizabeth II must surely have felt some pang of nervousness in the knowledge that the last British monarch to visit Ireland was her grandfather, George V, in 1911.
In the intervening hundred years, Ireland was partitioned, the south became a full republic and the Troubles seized the north of the island, ending cautiously with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. In that century of rebellion and blood spilled by British and Irish hands, no sovereign from the mainland dared to step onto Ireland’s famously rich soil for fear of reprisal attacks or, worse, assassination. More recently, the sale of Ireland to the highest bidder has brought its economy to the brink of collapse, and resurgent dissident activity north of the border has produced with it the threat of new attacks on Britain.
The scenes of the queen’s arrival on the BBC yesterday told two contradictory stories. The first was the apparently benign indifference of most interviewees, who provided helpful sound bites like “It’s time to move on” and “We welcome her here,” playing the role of the modern Irish citizen, completely at peace with still very recent history. Some statistics appear to back them up, with a full 81 percent of Irish people in support of her visit, according to a recent survey.
The second, more hurried narrative was the footage of row upon row of fluorescent-jacketed police officers lining the artificially deserted streets of central Dublin, with a voiceover announcing the “largest police operation in Irish history.” Every manhole was searched, prominent dissidents were arrested before they were able to cause any trouble and, despite the best efforts of the police, bomb scares in Dublin and London dominated headlines on the first day of the queen’s four-day visit.
One graduate student of economics at Trinity College Dublin described his own return to the city from Britain that evening. “As I came home from the airport today I passed a number of garda [police] checkpoints, and driving by Chapelizod someone on the bus pointed out that an army camp had been established by the Liffey [river]. I have never seen the power of the Irish State on display publicly as I have seen it today. Citizens entering Dublin City were checked, roads were closed and the Irish Army was in public spaces with weapons. This is unheard of in Dublin, at least in my lifetime.”
Any public appearance by the queen would have caused controversy, but the decision to visit sites of potent republican significance has garnered the greatest attention. Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams was on hand to remind the world, “British interference in Irish affairs has come at a huge cost to the Irish people. It has been marked by invasion, occupation, subjugation, famine and cycles of Irish resistance and British repression,” even while he called for “a new relationship between the people of the island of Ireland and between the people of Ireland and Britain based on equality and mutual respect.”