As everyone agrees, Queen Elizabeth II has carried out her duties for almost 60 years with an impeccable sense of correctness. Like her father, George VI, she is a constitutional monarch par excellence. If she has had recourse to her constitutional entitlement to counsel or to warn any of the 12 Prime Ministers who have served the United Kingdom we do not know about it.
There must have been moments when she regretted the changes in political direction of this country: the drift away from the Commonwealth and towards the “ever-closer union” with the European Union may, perhaps, have been a cause for royal regret. But no royal opinion has ever been expressed on the matter.
There have been difficult moments in her long reign, and the week of May 17 to May 20 may prove a challenging phase for the Queen. That is the week when she visits the Republic of Ireland, the first British monarch to go to what was once called “southern Ireland” since her grandfather’s state visit to Dublin in July 1911. The Queen has made over 380 state visits during her reign, and to many parts of the globe: but until now the Republic of Ireland has been the one destination which was never included.
It is hardly necessary to repeat the numerous reasons why such a visit could not take place until now: but the partition of Ireland and the “Troubles” in the north certainly played a part. Anglo-Irish relations have been through some tricky times in recent decades, reaching a nadir in the 1970s and 80s. In 1977, when Elizabeth made a formal visit to Belfast, she was hanged in effigy in the Falls Road. In 1979, her uncle by marriage, Lord Mountbatten, was murdered just off the Sligo coast. In response, Irish republicans would cite many distressing events – such as Bloody Sunday in 1972 – when Crown troops opened fire on unarmed citizens. And there’s another point: in Ireland, the British Army was historically referred to as “Crown forces” – the notorious Black and Tans being an example – so that “the Crown” itself was linked with the conduct of some of its less worthy soldiery.
But now the formal visit to the Irish Republic has been arranged: the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, has said it will be a “healing” process in Anglo-Irish history, and Prime Minister David Cameron clearly agrees – he personally apologised for Bloody Sunday as part of the visit’s preparation. The visit has been arranged to seal the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which was itself endorsed by referendums north and south, putting an end, in theory, to any armed conflict in British-Irish relations.
Yet this forthcoming state visit is awaited with some apprehension. Opinion polls tell us that 81 per cent of people in Ireland welcome the Queen (who will be accompanied by Prince Philip, who has visited Dublin before, informally). But 19 per cent say they do not, and that may include some very dangerous people with associations to the Continuity IRA, who so recently murdered the Catholic police officer Ronan Kerr.
The itinerary planned for this royal visit is both imaginative and risky. She will arrive at the military airport at Baldonnell, known as Casement Airport, called after Roger Casement who was, for Britain, a traitor, and for Ireland a patriot. Her first public event will be to lay a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin’s Parnell Square, which was opened in 1966 to commemorate the 1916 Easter Rising, and indeed, the generations of Irish nationalists who had died for Ireland, always in opposition to the Crown.
She will also go to Croke Park, where, again, Crown troops opened fire on unarmed civilians in 1920 and the event was dubbed the original Bloody Sunday. This is where the Queen’s stoic sense of duty will surely be apparent. It cannot be easy for her to do the bidding of the politicians and pay tribute, in these places, to the Fenian dead. But she will carry it out as her constitutional duty, because the elected politicians have decided that this is all part of the healing process in Anglo-Irish affairs. (You might think that Irish nationalists would be gracefully pleased that the embodiment of the Crown is appearing at the Garden of Remembrance, but some plan to demonstrate against it, on the rather thin grounds that HM is Colonel-in-Chief of the British forces.)
She will also visit the National War Memorial Gardens at Islandbridge in Dublin, where thousands of Irishmen who fell in the First World War are remembered. Most of these 50,000 were Irish Catholics, but their memory has been, until recently, somewhat marginalised by the official history of the Irish state.
We do not know the Queen’s personal feelings, and yet it is considered significant that she has agreed to an unusually long state visit of four days. She could have just visited Dublin – the first reports were that she would be confined to Dublin – where security can be best arranged. She certainly will see much of Dublin, including Trinity College, Guinness’s Storehouse, Dublin Castle and Áras an Uachtaráin, the presidential residence which was once the Vice-Regal Lodge, in Phoenix Park. But she will also see the historic Rock of Cashel in Co Tipperary and Cork City, too. And perhaps for her, personally, the most pleasurable part of all: a visit to the National Stud in Co Kildare where she will get to see some fabulous horses.
Attitudes to the coming visit, as expressed in the public realm in Ireland, have been on a wide spectrum of ambivalence. Sinn Féin has said they will not be “confrontational” – they have, after all, now gone legitimate – in any opposition to the event. But who knows what could occur at the margins, or among a small minority of anti-monarchist fanatics.
There is also a discernible anxiety among Irish nationalists as to how they ought to behave towards a British monarch. Many letters to the Dublin newspapers have expressed this obsessive fear of “fawning”. There are voices denouncing the practice of curtsying, unaware that only subjects curtsey, and even then it is no longer expected as routine.
Yet the British Ambassador, Julian King, has also received hundreds of letters from people all over Ireland saying how welcome the Queen would be in their locality. Many small towns positively yearn for a royal visit, since it is a matchless imprimatur for tourist connections.
If history is a guide, I think we may hope that it will turn out successfully. Whatever opposition was expressed to British monarchs visiting Ireland in the past usually melted away once the visit actually happened: there is an impulse to welcome – the céad míle fáilte – in Irish tradition, and it nearly always emerges spontaneously.
It will be a historic, sometimes controversial and certainly extremely interesting event. Whatever else, it will be different from the other 380 state visits Queen Elizabeth has made in the course of her reign, and that, in itself, may carry its own rewards.
Mary Kenny is the author of Crown and Shamrock: Love and hate between Ireland and the British monarchy (New Island Books, www.Newisland.ie).