Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Queen's Ireland trip healed 800 years of enmity

The Queen enjoying a fashion show as she attends the National Convention Centre Dublin on May 19, 2011 in Dublin, Ireland.
The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh Cashel, Co.Tipperary.
Equal Partnership: President McAleese and the Queen set a new course for Anglo-Irish relations

A belated Happy Christmas. Nollaig Shona Duit. There, I've gone and written it - in Irish. And on this Boxing Day 2011, the heavens haven't fallen out of the sky over Belfast City Hall. The Dome of Delight remains intact. The Union flag still flutters proudly atop the portals.

With a continental market held outside, why not deck out the whole building with Happy Christmas in French, German, Mandarin or Spanish - and, lest anyone feels left out, a wee bit of Ulster-Scots, as well?

I found the centre of Belfast buzzing last week, in spite of the recession, and a far cry from some of the miserable Christmases of the 1970s and 1980s. Thankfully, as another year ends, peace hangs in and long may it continue.

It's that time of year when we look back - in my case on around 40,000 words written in this column, attacking, defending, supporting, criticising, upbraiding, extolling, condemning and reflecting upon whatever struck my mind in any particular week.

Northern Ireland is no less British, but perhaps, as the sign at the City Hall demonstrates, a little more Irish than it was a year ago, when I was coughing a bout of swine flu out of my lungs in the sub-zero snow-bound surroundings of Christmas 2010. Even though Stormont does not appear to do much, the longer it survives the more at ease with one another we seem to be becoming.

Miles of peace walls still exist, but every now and then, a gate opens, or a barrier is raised, or an Irish sign is tolerated, or another Orange march passes off without incident.

Very slowly, if not all that surely, we step into a future which might have a little less intolerance and a bit more understanding.

For that, we should be thankful - if hardly complacent, because we cannot be totally sure and so much still needs to be done.

The big moment of total tolerance and understanding this year was the Queen's incredible visit to Dublin. It was the stuff of Anglo-Irish dreams.

The Duke of Edinburgh wielding a hurley stick at Croke Park. Cheers for the Queen in the rebel city of Cork. Handshakes and smiles replacing 800 years of enmity. And a warm mention of Ireland in the Queen's Christmas message.

I hope that we can look back on those remarkable pictures of Elizabeth Windsor and Mary McAleese and reflect that 2011 was truly a turning-point in our history.

Sadly, 2011 will be remembered in another way. One word dominated all our lives: money. Or, rather, the lack of it.

As a consequence, our homes are worth less. Jobs are gone or at risk of going. The future for many families is tainted with uncertainty.

No one section of our society can rest easy. No one part of this island has escaped the pain. I doubt if there is anyone, rich or poor, who has not been touched in some way.

When we look back on 2011 we may conclude that it was the year when we came to our collective senses. Reality dawned.

The financial certainties of life could be taken for granted no longer. However, there is more to life than money.

In 2011, the Republic, through the Queen's successful visit, and Northern Ireland, through golf and entertainment, shrugged off outdated perceptions.

Once we were the bastion of terrorism. Now we are the golfing capital of the Western world. Rory McIlroy is fast supplanting Ian Paisley or Gerry Adams as our most famous figure. Surely that's a positive.

The tears of Darren Clarke embracing his two sons after winning the Open Championship help to uplift us all out of our terrible past.

Lady Gaga at the MTV awards, Snow Patrol in outdoor concert at the City Hall - these are the images of a new Northern Ireland which tell the outside world we are not what so many people think we are.

We are moving on in the right direction. Happy Christmas and Nollaig Shona Duit to one and all.

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