Belfast Telegraph

Will Martin be able to reach out and meet the monarch?

By Ed Curran

I was born on that side of the tracks in Northern Ireland which celebrated the Queen's coronation. Although June 2, 1953 was a public holiday, we went to school to watch the coronation on television.

The school principal owned the local electrical shop, from which he transported a mahogany-veneered box with a 14-inch screen, erected it in a classroom and invited the pupils to come along and view the historic crowning of young Elizabeth Windsor.

For many of us, it was the first time we had experienced television.

I ran home filled with excitement and breathlessly recounted how, courtesy of the grainy monochrome images on Master Scott's magical machine, the pomp and ceremony of Westminster Abbey had been beamed before our eyes in county Tyrone.

Regrettably, we have lived ever since in a corner of the UK where the Queen - like the Pope - has been revered by some and reviled by others.

Her six decades have spanned the entire Northern Ireland Troubles. Her own family, like many here, did not escape the heartbreak of violence.

The Queen's forthcoming visit to Northern Ireland will prove an important test of community relations - especially in the aftermath of her experience in the Republic.

Too many Royal visits were seen by past British governments as a means of narrowly reassuring unionists. Future visits should have a broader appeal and a wider vision, encompassing the entire community.

The diamond jubilee will prompt widespread celebrations in the unionist community, reflecting traditional political and cultural loyalty.

But the Queen is not head of state of just one section of society. More than ever, a wider community context is emphasised in the day-to-day duties of the monarch at home and abroad.

If loyalist leaders can meet an Irish president, how can nationalists and republicans reciprocate? Might not the visit of the world's most famous woman be just the moment to break another mould?

Initial signs are encouraging. The decision of the Sinn Fein party in Belfast City Hall to show no dissent over the programme of diamond jubilee festivities planned for June is a positive move.

So too, were SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell's complimentary comments about the Queen at the Stormont Assembly recently.

If we are to have any hope of maintaining the momentum for peace and normality, each side in this divided equation must give a little.

The First Minister, Peter Robinson, said as much to unionists in his speech last autumn rejecting the 'them and us' mentality. Translating words into actions is what is now required. Symbolic acts, such as a unionist leader attending a major GAA event, or a nationalist laying a wreath on Remembrance Sunday, may seem insignificant in the full scale of political accommodation, but they are important.

We have to start somewhere, one small step after another.

In that respect, the Queen and former Irish president Mary McAleese took a giant leap for Anglo-Irish relations last year.

How can that new entente be reflected in Northern Ireland during the Queen's diamond visit? Can nationalists and republicans demonstrate, in some tangible form, that the days of wishing only ill-will to a British monarch are gone?

Have we reached the stage where Martin McGuinness, as deputy First Minister, could meet the Queen publicly, or behind closed doors?

Or is that a step too far for someone who has not as yet shared even a public handshake with a unionist First Minister?

The Queen's visit should be seen as no threat to nationalism, but as an opportunity to show that Northern Ireland is more united in respecting the two great traditions, British and Irish, upon which our society is founded.

If the Queen can be so warmly welcomed as she was at Croke Park, the home of Gaelic Ireland, surely it is time she saw for herself more of the other side of the tracks in Northern Ireland.

We live today in an equilibrium between Britishness and Irishness which lies at the heart of the Stormont Assembly.

This arrangement should be reflected in the programme for a visit by the head of state; through the range of people whom the Queen will meet and the events she will attend.

Much groundwork has already been done. Firstly, when Pope Benedict was welcomed so respectfully to Britain in 2010 and then, last year, with the Queen in Dublin.

Those historic encounters drew deep lines in the sands of time from a political and religious point of view.

It remains to be seen if the people of Northern Ireland can do the same when the Queen comes to visit.

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