Future comes before the past as Queen heads for Ireland

The Queen in Omagh
Image caption In 2002 the Queen visited the site of the Omagh bombing but she has never been south of the border

When Irish rugby captain Brian O'Driscoll was recently invited to the Royal wedding, it was clear that it was only a matter of time before the Queen visited the Republic of Ireland for the first time.

The connection may seem trivial but it was the latest in a long list of signs that Ireland and the UK now have a normal, neighbourly relationship not weighed down by the baggage of Anglo-Irish history.

Another signal was when Prince Charles and Camilla were invited four months ago to a reception at the Irish Embassy in London.

In a speech, the prince said: "I hope that we can endeavour to become the subject of our history, and not its prisoners."

A further sign of normalisation came at the end of last year when the UK offered the Irish government a £3bn bi-lateral loan as part of Ireland's international bail-out.

Economic realities trumped political sensitivities as both nations realised it made financial sense to protect mutual trade interests.

Political hurdles

Die-hard republicans say the Queen should only come to Dublin once Britain gives up sovereignty over Northern Ireland, accepts responsibility for the Troubles and apologises for the Irish famine.

Image caption Enda Kenny hopes to be the first Taoiseach to welcome the Queen

Most politicians in Belfast and Dublin prefer to concentrate on the future, rather than a subjective view of the past.

However, significant political hurdles had to be negotiated to make the Queen's visit later this year possible.

British-Irish relations have been close to breaking point over the course of the past century.

The most testing times came when Ireland gained independence, and then when the Troubles broke out in Northern Ireland.

The British Embassy in Dublin was burned down in 1972 in the wake of Bloody Sunday.

The historic breakthrough in British-Irish relations came with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

Talk of the Queen visiting Dublin then began but it was only when the fragile power-sharing executive at Stormont finally stabilised a decade later, that serious consideration of setting a date for a trip started.

Elections then got in the way. The British poll last year, followed by the Irish election last week, created political uncertainty. Now, finally, the way is clear for the visit to happen.

Building bridges

Irish President Mary McAleese, who leaves office at the end of this year, has been the driving force behind the visit.

The theme of her 14-year presidency has been building bridges, and she is determined to cement the new era in relations between London and Dublin.

The business links are already extensive:

  • The Republic of Ireland is the UK's fifth largest export market
  • Every person in Ireland spends an average of £3,607 per year on British goods
  • 62 Irish companies are listed on the London Stock Exchange
  • There are 43,000 Irish directors of UK companies

The state visit will cost Ireland money, at a time when its finances have hit a record low.

The security bill will be high, given the threat from dissident republicans.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has said he is not in favour of the visit, but his party has yet to say whether it will stage street protests. All the other main political parties in Dublin support the visit.

It is being seen by the Dublin establishment as a good investment in Ireland's future, and a sign of a new, mature international relationship.

Image caption Gerry Adams, recently elected as TD for County Louth, is opposed to the visit

As for the UK perspective, Daily Telegraph writer Ed West recently wrote: "From Britain's point of view it is like having an ex-wife who has hated you for so long because of your unhappy marriage, but with whom you finally make peace, so that you have even come to like each other as friends."

The news of the impending visit hit the headlines in Dublin on Friday evening but did not stir many strong feelings in the city.

The most humorous Irish response on Twitter was: "Queen coming to Dublin? Hope they play all their hits and not just their new album."

Apart from Israel and Greece, it is difficult to think of many other prominent countries in the world the Queen has not visited. She has been to more than 100 different states, but not her closest neighbour.

The trip to Ireland is not a major trip in geographical terms, but when history is written, it may turn out to be one of the most significant of the Queen's long reign.

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