The first visit to Ireland by a British monarch in a century may say more about what unites the two countries than what divides them.
Queen Elizabeth II’s plane landed at Baldonnel airfield outside Dublin at noon today and the 85-year-old monarch emerged wearing green, the Irish national color. She later headed to the Garden of Remembrance, a park in Dublin’s north city center dedicated to those “who gave their lives in the cause of Irish Freedom.” Tomorrow her schedule includes a trip to Croke Park, where British soldiers killed 14 people 90 years ago.
“The symbolism shows the maturity of two countries able to do their business in a modern way,” Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny said in parliament today.
Ireland is enduring the worst recession since winning independence in 1922 and economic ties with the U.K. are still strong. Britain offered 3.25 billion pounds ($5.3 billion) in aid to Ireland as part of last year’s bailout of the debt-laden nation. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne said last week Ireland is “a special case” for the U.K.
The U.K. still accounts for 15 percent of Irish exports, while 45 percent of all travelers to Ireland come from its nearest neighbor. Yet numbers visiting dropped by 20 percent last year, and the government is hoping for an economic dividend from the visits of the queen and U.S. President Barack Obama, who is due to arrive in Dublin later this month.
The last British monarch to visit Ireland was George V in 1911, according to the BBC. The queen, who was crowned in 1953, will also visit the National Stud in Kildare, the Rock of Cashel in Tipperary and then finish her tour with a trip to Cork in the southwest of the country.
“The extent of the queen’s itinerary is surprising and quite audacious,” said Diarmaid Ferriter, a historian and author of “The Transformation of Ireland: 1900-2000.” “The royals don’t do apologies. Her presence at monuments to Irish republicans is the nearest thing we’ll get to that.”
The visits are “invaluable” in showcasing Ireland, Finance Minister Michael Noonan said on May 10 as he cut sales taxes on restaurants and accommodation to help tourism.
“It is an extraordinary moment in Irish history,” Irish President Mary McAleese told broadcaster RTE. Now is “absolutely the right moment” for the visit, she said.
Britain split Ireland in two in 1921: the 26-county Catholic-dominated Republic of Ireland, and the six-county Protestant-majority Northern Ireland, which is still part of the U.K. About 3,000 people died in the three-decade-long Northern Irish conflict that erupted in the late 1960s and largely ended with the Good Friday accord in 1998.
Some animosity toward the U.K. remains. Dissident Irish republicans were likely behind a bomb threat in central London yesterday, the Metropolitan Police said.
There was a “minor public order incident” on O’Connell Street in central Dublin this afternoon and arrests were made, a spokesman for the Irish police said by phone. The spokesman, who declined to be identified, wasn’t able to give extra details. A British flag was set alight during protests involving around 150 people, the Irish Times newspaper reported.
An explosive device was discovered today on a bus outside Dublin. That won’t disrupt the queen’s visit, Prime Minister Enda Kenny told RTE. Kenny said police had dealt with the incident “appropriately.”
One organization, Eirigi, is planning a camp close to the Garden of Remembrance in a bid to block the visit.
Garden of Remembrance
“The Garden of Remembrance is dedicated to those who have died fighting the British occupation of Ireland,” the group said in a statement on its website. “To bring the British head of state there while Britain continues to occupy the Six Counties is provocative in the extreme.”
In 2006, a march by Ulster loyalists through Dublin city sparked riots, in scenes reminiscent of the 1972 burning of the British Embassy in Dublin and the 1981 violence there as republican hunger strikers died in prisons in Northern Ireland.
Yet overall, there’s been little widespread public opposition to the visit.
Sinn Fein, the main republican political party, is not planning any big protests. Instead, members laid a wreath at a memorial of the 33 people killed in the 1974 Dublin and Monaghan bombings, blamed on loyalist terrorists. The organization also released 1,000 black balloons in Dublin as the queen visited the Garden of Remembrance.
“Feelings will run high, given the history and the inconvenience involved for the people of the city,” Shaun Tracey, a Sinn Fein spokesman, said before the visit. “But we don’t want confrontation. We want to keep people calm.”