It is just three months shy of the 190th anniversary of the visit of George IV, who was the first British monarch to come to this country without an accompanying army. Queen Elizabeth II will arrive today, accompanied by an army of media.
President Mary McAleese has described today’s visit as “an extraordinary moment in Irish history, a phenomenal sign and signal of the success of the peace process”. The sad fact is that it is indeed an extraordinary moment, and that is why the visit has attracted so much media attention. It is the first visit by a reigning British monarch since we achieved independence.
The queen officially begins her visit by going to Phoenix Park to call on President McAleese at Áras an Uachtaráin, which was the Vice Regal Lodge for over a century.
Irrespective of anybody’s feelings about the monarchy we should respect the choice of the British people to retain their own symbols of governance, just as we expect others to respect the form we have chosen. Nobody is suggesting that the queen’s visit means that we should change our system. Surely we have the confidence and maturity to appreciate this. Any suggestion to the contrary is not just an insult to the British queen, but an insult to the Irish people.
The Irish visit Britain with extraordinary regularity and British people are the most frequent foreign visitors to this country. In the midst of the current economic difficulties we are striving to attract more British tourists. Yet a whole century has passed since a reigning British monarch —the queen’s grandfather George V — visited this part of the island in 1911.
Due to the legacy of history such visits have not been advisable since then. The queen’s great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, made a famous visit a century and a half ago in 1861. She helped to put Killarney on the tourist map, and no doubt many people will hope that the reception given to the current queen on her visit will send out a positive message to the world.
For too long this island was international news for all the wrong reasons — car bombings, fire bombings and murders. Now we are making news because of our current financial difficulties.
The visit affords us an opportunity to showcase the positive aspects of what we have to offer the world. The queen will be highlighting our own rich cultural tradition when she visits the Rock of Cashel, which dates back hundreds of years before the arrival of the Normans.
Some of the most impressive buildings still in use in Dublin were constructed prior to independence, such as Dublin Castle, City Hall, the Four Courts and Custom House. The queen’s great-grandfather, Edward VII, dug the ceremonial first sod and her grandfather, George V, officially opened the Royal College of Science at Leinster Lawn. It now houses the Taoiseach’s office.
Our sporting ties with Britain are particularly strong, whether one is talking about rugby, soccer, or horse racing. One of the most memorable indications of the changing times was the visit of the English rugby team to Croke Park in 2007.
With the bloody memory of what happened in Croke Park in 1920, there were fears of ugly scenes. It must have been a real eye-opener for our unionist and loyalist brethren in Northern Ireland when the combined Garda and Army No 1 Bands played the British national anthem and those who wished to sing God Save the Queen were allowed to do so with a respectful silence that was unbroken by a single note of discord amongst a crowd of over 80,000 people.
One sensed that the Irish people in the crowd were never more proud of being Irish during their ensuing rendition of Amhrán na bhFiann. It brought tears to the eyes of many of the players, who went on to crown those pre-match ceremonies with an awesome display of rugby. Ireland was never more united than it was that day. The queen’s visit is an opportunity to demonstrate that even though we do not share their attachment, we do respect the sentimental affection that our unionist and loyalist brethren have for the crown. It also affords the opportunity to demonstrate that all law-abiding British people are welcome in Ireland. The British should feel welcome to visit Ireland.
We should have a situation in which the visit of the British monarch should attract no more attention than one of Jack Charlton’s fishing trips. Hopefully this is a start and such visits would become so regular as to become common.
We bid Queen Elizabeth II céad míle fáilte.
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