Could the Queen End A Century of Tension With Ireland?

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Arthur Edwards/ Pool / Reuters

Britain's Queen Elizabeth gives her speech next to Ireland's President Mary McAleese during the state dinner at Dublin Castle in Dublin May 18, 2011

As Queen Elizabeth II was touching down in a Dublin airport on May 17 for the start of her four-day visit to Ireland, the Irish people were holding their collective breath. The Queen's visit was being billed as a sign of the end of centuries of friction between the two countries — and one which most Irish were praying would go well, as they could little afford any more harm to their nation's reputation given the bad economic news that has marred it in recent months.

But before the visit even began, tensions were raised when a pipe bomb was discovered on a bus in Maynooth, about 16 miles from Dublin. Then on the first day of the Queen's trip, violence broke out as a few hundred rioters threw bricks, fireworks and full soda cans at police while blocks away the British head of state made a hugely symbolic gesture in laying a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance, which commemorates those who died in the Irish struggle for independence.

The Irish people were quick to condemn the actions of the few, and in the following days the letters pages of the national press demonstrated little other than contempt for that vociferous minority. The mood relaxed and the rest of the Queen's visit passed without incident. By the time she left on Friday, consensus was that the trip had been more of a success than the either British or Irish officials could have hoped. "I think she'll do more good than harm by coming here," said Diane McLaughlin, a grandmother living in Dublin, adding that she has a relative who was "no fan of the Queen or England" but who had admitted to being touched by the week's events. "You have to let bygones be bygones," says McLaughlin. "There's too much looking back. You have to go forward."

The troubled history between Britain and Ireland once made it unthinkable that the Queen of England could have set foot on Irish soil. Britain's occupation of its smaller neighbor lasted for centuries until the south's struggle for independence led to the establishment of the Irish Republic in 1937. However Northern Ireland, which remains under British rule, went on to experience The Troubles, a 29-year conflict between Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists in which more than 3,600 people died.

For those reasons, some in Ireland were offended by the Queen's visit, which took in Dublin, the Rock of Cashel in Tipperary, and Cork city. Members of Sinn Fein, a republican party that strives for a united Ireland, labelled the visit "premature" and "insensitive" and refused to attend events at which the Queen appeared or to meet with her. All that is, except for the mayor of Cashel, who may be the only Sinn Fein member ever to have greeted the Queen. Asked why he broke with the party line, he said it was part of his civic duty as mayor. "I just shook hands with her," he told reporters.

In the days before the Queen's arrival, questions were raised as to whether or not she would apologize for Britain's role in the events between the two nations. Then on Wednesday came the pivotal moment: a speech in Dublin Castle, once the seat of British rule in Ireland. The Queen started her speech in Gaelic — Ireland's native language, which was displaced with British rule — and spoke of "deep sympathy" for those who suffered as a consequence of the countries' troubled past. But there was no apology. The closest she came was to say that "with the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we wish had been done differently, or not at all." In a trip that was loaded with symbolism, that speech was the only time the Queen spoke publicly, talking of the "sad and regrettable reality" of the conflict. "So much of this visit reminds us of the complexity of our history, its many layers and traditions, but also the importance of forbearance and conciliation," she said. "Of being able to bow to the past, but not be bound by it."

Indeed, if the aim of the visit was the normalization of relations between Ireland and the U.K., the reaction from people on the streets of Ireland seemed to indicate that it had achieved just that. Frank Moran from the Dublin suburb of Swords, described the trip as a "momentous" event in Irish history. "Elizabeth I created chaos by removing our own destiny," he said, referring to the monarch whose aggressive stance on Ireland caused, amongst other things, the exile of the Ulster clans which resulted in the plantation of English and Scottish Protestant settlers. "Elizabeth II now has rebuilt that bridge."

However, Micheál Ó Siochrú, history professor at Trinity College Dublin, says it is still too early to know what kind of lasting impact the visit will have on relations between the two counties. Noting that the trip was clearly of "huge historical significance" and a testament to the peace process in Northern Ireland, he cautions that as long as the issue of contested sovereignty in Northern Ireland remains, unresolved questions would persist between the two states. "I don't think we're at a stage where we can say we can consign all this to history," says Siochrú. "But if the Queen's trip helps in [the continuation of the peace] process, it will be a very worthwhile visit.