In the coming weeks, Ireland will host two of the world's most recognizable VIPs: Queen Elizabeth II and President Barack Obama. And as the country gets ready, the taxi drivers of Dublin are seeing the careful and sometimes inconvenient preparations up close. "The police have been down every manhole in Dublin twice at this stage," says one, describing the increase in security that includes the inspection of the city's sewers for bombs.
Ireland is taking no chances with its high-profile guests: reports say that around 10,000 police officers and military personnel will be deployed over the course of the two visits. But it is the Queen's arrival in Dublin on Tuesday that makes the Irish police force most nervous. Not everyone in Ireland is happy to see the Queen, whose four-day visit the first ever by a British monarch to the Republic has put into action the state's biggest-ever security operation.
The reluctance of the Queen and her father King George VI before her to visit England's closest neighbor stems from centuries of British occupation of Ireland. While the Republic of Ireland fought its way to independence with the founding of the Free State in 1922 and establishment of the Republic in 1937, Northern Ireland stayed under British rule. Sectarian tensions between Catholic republicans and Protestant unionists in the region grew, until they erupted into three decades of violence, during which over 3,600 people were killed.
The Troubles, as they are called, ended with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. But until recently, the historical unrest made a visit by the Queen to the Republic seem an impossibility. So the announcement last month of her visit was viewed by some as a sign of political maturity. But the symbolism of the visit has also stirred up deep resentment among some Irish. On Easter Monday, a representative of the splinter sectarian group called the Real IRA appeared in a video statement wearing a balaclava and military clothing and referred to the visit as "the upcoming insult" and the government's invite as unrepresentative of the wishes of the Irish people. "The Queen of England is wanted for war crimes in Ireland and not wanted on Irish soil," he said. "We will do our best to ensure she and the gombeen [corrupt] class that act as her cheerleaders get that message." The statement also included a threat to kill more Northern Irish police officers just weeks after the murder of Catholic police officer Ronan Kerr in Omagh.
Meanwhile, the republican group Eirigi (Rise Up) has placed a countdown timer on its website, calling for the Queen's visit to be met with "widespread opposition and protest." The group is asking those against the visit to occupy the Garden of Remembrance, a memorial park in Dublin dedicated to those who fought for Irish freedom, which is part of the Queen's official itinerary. She will also go to Croke Park Stadium, the headquarters of Ireland's two national sports, Gaelic football and hurling, and the site of one of the bloodiest days of the War of Independence, when 14 civilians were killed by British forces retaliating the killing of British undercover agents earlier in the day.
For supporters, the Queen's visit is a chance to show how the U.K. and Ireland have "moved on" a term that galls some Irish. But even Sinn Fein, Ireland's most staunchly republican political party, seems to have relaxed its earlier outright opposition. In a statement on the party's website on Saturday, leader Gerry Adams said, "I am for a new relationship between ... the people of Ireland and Britain based on equal and mutual respect. I hope this visit will hasten that day, but much will depend on what the British monarch says."
But given that the Irish are living under tight austerity measures after getting a $96 billion bailout from the E.U. and the International Monetary Fund, can the country even afford its famous guests? Security costs for the visits by the Queen and Obama a week later will reach an estimated $42 million, according to unconfirmed reports.
James Connolly Heron, the great grandson of James Connolly, an icon of the Irish struggle for independence, questions the appropriateness of spending taxpayers' money to play host when the country is broke. "It appears no consideration was given to paring down the visit as regards to where we are economically," he says, adding that he feels talk of Ireland "moving on" is nonsense given the level of security required during the Queen's time in the country.
But Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny has called both visits "an investment for the future," citing the benefits they will bring in the way of tourism and business. Given all the bad news surrounding the country of late, Kenny added, they could also be good for Ireland's image. And many Irish hope he's right. "The eyes of the world are going to be on Ireland, so hopefully the Queen's visit will showcase the country," says taxi driver Stuart Batt. "It's an opportunity for the world to view us positively in these negative times."