A royal bid to end eons of enmity

The air is thick with history, and the police are on edge, as queen’s Dublin visit nears

The aftermath of fighting between Irish nationalists and British troops during the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. The aftermath of fighting between Irish nationalists and British troops during the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. (Associated Press)
By Kevin Cullen
Globe Staff / May 15, 2011

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Thirty years ago, as 10 Irish republicans starved themselves to death in a British prison in Northern Ireland to make a point, someone blew up the Queen Victoria monument in Dún Laoghaire Harbor, just south of Dublin.

It was a classic act of Irish defiance. But that was a long time ago. The Irish and the British have never been closer, never more friendly. And to mark the occasion, Queen Elizabeth II will arrive in Dublin on Tuesday to end, once and for all, the Anglo-Irish conflict, the oldest, most resilient animosity in the Western world.

So why are two police officers standing guard over the rebuilt monument in Dún Laoghaire?

Because there are some things that don’t die in Ireland, and one of them is memory.

It would be difficult to overstate the historical significance of the queen’s visit. She is the first British monarch to set foot in what would become the Republic of Ireland since King George V, the queen’s grandfather, in 1911. In the interim, the Irish staged a futile uprising in 1916, a bitter war of independence five years later, and something of a cold war for the next 80 odd years, all of it aimed at the British.

Beginning in 1969, the war in Northern Ireland, which the Irish in their penchant for understatement called The Troubles, took more than 3,000 lives, including that of the queen’s cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten.

In 1979, the Irish Republican Army planted a bomb in the boat Mountbatten, 79, took off the coast of Mullaghmore in County Sligo. It blew him apart, along with his daughter’s mother-in-law, Lady Brabourne, his 14-year-old grandson, and a 15-year-old local youth named Paul Maxwell who had the misfortune of piloting the boat.

Over the centuries, the Crown forces, initially under the literal and later under the titular leadership of the British monarch, inflicted their own pain on Ireland, killing and maiming thousands and contributing to centuries of bitterness between the colonized and the colonizer that ended in 1998 when the Good Friday Agreement ended the war in Northern Ireland.

The queen’s visit to Ireland is meant to be a final act of reconciliation and a victory lap, an opportunity for neighboring islands to celebrate their strong and mutually beneficial friendship, one that extends to the lobbies of Brussels, where Ireland and the United Kingdom are fast allies in the European Union.

But for all its historical import, the timing of the queen’s trip is, at the least, problematic. Dissident republicans who oppose the Good Friday Agreement are determined to wreck the visit and would give their eye teeth for a crack at the queen.

And Ireland, which a decade ago leapfrogged past the UK in every measurable standard of living, is suddenly, shockingly, depressingly broke. A banking crisis brought on by reckless lending and unregulated development forced Ireland to take a multi-billion dollar bailout, which has left many Irish people saying the sovereignty they fought for centuries to wrest from the British has been meekly surrendered to the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank.

More than 10,000 Irish police and soldiers will roll out to protect the queen. How to pay for this is anyone’s guess, at a time when the benefits to the blind are being cut and the curse of emigration has returned to a country badly scarred by it since the famine of the 1840s.

Mary McAleese, Ireland’s president, was adamant that before her second 7-year term ends this year, the queen would visit.

McAleese grew up in the cauldron of Northern Ireland in its worst days. Her brother was nearly beaten to death, his only offense being that he was Catholic. McAleese and her husband, Martin, have spent much of her 14 years in Áras an Uachtaráin, the presidential mansion in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, fostering closer relations between Irish nationalists and British loyalists.

In an interview during her most recent visit to Boston two years ago, McAleese explained how important she regarded the queen’s visit to the Republic. She made no apologies for spending so much of her time trying to make the visit happen.

“It would be the culmination, a celebration, of the efforts that both countries have put into bringing peace,’’ she said.

There is no question that the queen’s visit is, historically and politically, hugely significant, but tell that to the Garda Síochána, Ireland’s national police force. The queen’s four-day visit, and especially her preference for car travel over helicopter, creates a logistical nightmare in a country where narrow roads and long memories can provide opportunities for those who still believe they have a right to murder the British in Ireland.

While the queen usually goes on small walkabouts when she visits other countries, the police are so concerned for her safety that there will be no spontaneous mixing with the Irish. Anyone in Ireland who meets her will be handpicked, and probably handsearched.

The queen’s visit is replete with symbolic gestures, most of them rooted in reconciliation.

Shortly after arriving in Dublin, she will travel to the Garden of Remembrance, a small but impeccably kept park at the top of O’Connell Street that was opened on the 50th anniversary of the quixotic 1916 Easter Rising and is dedicated to “the memory of all those who gave their lives in the cause of Irish Freedom.’’ In shorthand: those who died fighting the Brits. A republican socialist group has vowed to occupy the Garden, and police have vowed to arrest them.

She will also visit Trinity College, in the heart of Dublin, founded in 1592, the oldest university in Ireland, formed with the express consent of the queen’s namesake, Queen Elizabeth I. The college’s influence on Irish life underscores the British influence on Irish life.

And not to be outdone, the queen will visit the Guinness Storehouse at St. James Gate, not to be confused with St. James Park, which she can see out her front window in London. No doubt, Her Majesty will be photographed holding a glass of the black stuff.

She can’t have a Guinness at John Stokes’ pub in Fairview on Dublin’s Northside. A couple of months ago, Stokes put a 40-foot banner across the front of his pub, the Players Lounge, declaring in no uncertain terms that the queen was not welcome there.

“I’m a republican,’’ Stokes explained. “The British have no right to be in my country.’’

The police ordered Stokes to take his banner down. And last month, they raided the pub and seized ammunition they believe was intended to arm dissident republicans who oppose the peace process in Northern Ireland and support violent opposition to British rule.

Ironically, and some say hypocritically, Stokes’ pub is known for showing English soccer games on its myriad TV screens. While outspoken, Stokes is not alone in his opposition to the queen’s visit. Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Féin, the former political wing of the IRA, said the queen’s visit is insensitive.

David Norris, a scholar of James Joyce who is running to succeed McAleese as president, said the queen’s visit is a referendum on Ireland’s maturity.

“She should be welcomed warmly,’’ Norris said in an interview last week at the Algonquin Club in Boston, where he held a fund-raiser. “We are, as countries and peoples, close friends now. It’s long past the time that the queen comes to Ireland. And I shall, like the vast majority of Irish people, welcome her.’’

But if history has shown anything in Ireland, it doesn’t take many to wreck a party. As the police round up the usual suspects, there is an unstated fear that someone could do something that, beyond being dangerous, could be highly embarrassing.

About 60 percent of Ireland’s tourists come from the UK. Doing something to embarrass the British head of state would be bad for business when the Irish need all the business they can get.

Still, the Irish aren’t exactly up on all this royal stuff. Last week, radio ads on Ireland’s national broadcaster meant to welcome the queen inadvertently demoted her, referring to her not as Her Majesty, but as Her Royal Highness, a title reserved for princesses.

Buckingham Palace felt it necessary to issue a statement saying the queen did not take offense at the faux pas.

If that’s the biggest problem the queen has this week, her visit will be a roaring success.

Kevin Cullen, the Globe’s former Dublin and London bureau chief, will be in Ireland this week following the queen’s visit. He can be reached at top stories on Twitter

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