Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Protests greet Queen's first visit to Ireland

Queen Elizabeth II is making a historic visit to the Republic of Ireland this week, the first time a British monarch has visited Ireland in 100 years. That the visit is even happening is a sign of how much relations between the republic and its former imperial master have healed in recent times. But there are still people on the island, including both Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, who are quite upset about the visit. And those people were out in force yesterday to greet the British monarch with insults and epithets.

The Queen's 'reconciliation visit' to Dublin, where she will be protected by more than 8,500 police officers backed by the army, has virtually shut down the city centre. Her visit, during which she will be dressed in all green, has been meticulously planned out to the last detail, carefully choreographed around every diplomatic sensitivity. She has been making a tour of memorial sights where Irish republican fighters died fighting against British rule. Today she will visit Croke Park stadium, the site of a notorious massacre where 14 Irish civilians were killed by British troops in 1920. She also spent this morning visiting the Guiness Storehouse, where amusingly she was offered a pint of Guiness at 9:30 in the morning. According to the AP she smiled but politely declined.

The big question is whether this goodwill visit will solidify the noramlisation of relations between the two countries over the issue of Northern Ireland. Such a visit by the British monarch would have been inconceivable a few decades ago. The British monarchy has always been the villain in the story of the Irish struggle for independence, and that has continued for those that believe Ireland will never be truly free until the British leave its Northern section.

But even Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, who for decades fought the British in Northern Ireland, was able to joke earlier this week about the time he spent in prison in the 1970's "at her majesty's pleasure". Adams has embraced the visit, and the key test will be whether Catholics in Northern Ireland support his peaceful political path or if they decide to continue violent resistance to British rule. For their part, some top Unionist protestant leaders in Northern Ireland have criticised the Queen's decision to visit the graves of Republican fighters, who they still consider to be treasonout rebels.

So far much of the Irish media seems to be bending to the pressure of the charm offensive. The right-leaning Irish Daily Mail said the Queen's decision to pay respect to the graves of Irish rebels had endeared her to the Irish population. "With one momentary bow of the head, Queen Elizabeth II banished centuries of mistrust yesterday in a historic first visit to the Republic of Ireland by a reigning British monarch," they wrote.

But other papers have accused the British media, as well as those Irish papers that are British-owned, of presenting a distorted view of the public's reaction to the queen. They say these papers gave little coverage to the protests that greeted the queen at her arrival yesterday, during which 21 people were arrested. (Though the British Daily Mail did do a pretty alarmist photo spread ahead of the visit).  They've accused the visit of being an effort to paper over the Northern Ireland problem and pretend that everything is fine. A bomb threat called in by the IRA that closed of sections of central London last week might suggest that they are not.

But on the other hand, maybe everything really is fine. The British seem to be betting that if they can get through this state visit without incident and without widespread objection from the Irish people it will be a significant PR victory and turn the momentum of history toward a permanent peace in Northern Ireland. That, of course, remains to be seen.

1 comment:

Sean said...

I think most Irish people see this as a non-event, or at least the younger generation does. Maybe an older generation feels the significance of this, but for people my age (20s) it seems natural that the queen would visit Ireland. I don't understand all the fuss.