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.”
The sense of two currents, the mainstream and the subtext, was also present when the queen laid a wreath in Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance to commemorate those who died fighting for Irish independence. The British national anthem was played by members of the Irish military as she entered, and so the smooth attempt to bury history was heavily complicated by the aural signature of a monarch supposedly on a peace mission. The queen was willing to honor the dead but reminded the assembled company that her own status should not be downgraded, however awkward the symbolism.
The eagerness of Irish politicians to entertain the queen on such terms suggests a level of rapprochement unprecedented in the past century, and her itinerary, which also encompasses a visit to the republican heartland of Cork, is at once provocative and indicative of that much-vaunted goal, “the full normalization of relations.”
Her next test was today at Croke Park, scene of the first Bloody Sunday massacre. On November 21, 1920, fourteen unarmed people were killed by British police and troops during a Gaelic football game in reprisal for the assassination of British intelligence officers early that morning by members of the IRA, as mythologized in the 1996 film Michael Collins. The most interesting aspect of the queen’s Croke Park visit, however, according to Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole in the Guardian, is its supposed lack of controversy, or, “the studied pretense that nothing much is happening is itself testament to the reality that the unthinkable is coming to pass.” The Irish government would prefer neither hate nor jubilation for the queen, but simple, shrugging apathy, the truest form of acceptance.
That the government feels able to receive the queen at such a time of crisis for the country has annoyed some. Back in Dublin, the graduate student said he found “the contrast between the open power of the Irish state in harassing its own citizenry and its inability to tackle our own domestic financial criminals, or safeguard the country’s interests in the face of bullying by the European Central Bank,” to be “genuinely shocking.” The government can bend for a British monarch, it seems, but cannot apply the same rigid discipline to the tax cheats and reckless investors who have made all the “Leapin’ Leprechaun” and “Celtic tiger” clichés seem laughable (Tom Friedman, I’m looking in your direction).
As the queen makes her way around the country, she will not visit one area of close personal import. In 1979 Lord Mountbatten, the monarch’s cousin by marriage, was killed by an IRA bomb on his yacht in County Sligo along with his 14-year-old grandson. The acknowledgment of Irish suffering by the queen also allows Ireland to see that, symbolically at least, Britain has made some peace with its own dead.
The days of IRA bombs planted on the London tube and in shopping malls full of people seem very long ago in Britain’s popular imagination, and so the queen’s visit seems oddly normal, shocking in that it has taken so long. That perception, however, is an illusion only partially masked by all the efforts of governments, security forces and smiling BBC royal correspondents. We can vaunt our peace and our achievements, but we should not force the still complicated present into the past.