Belfast Telegraph

Why Queen's visit should be seen as a new beginning

By Gail Walker

So the Queen is to visit the Republic this year. For most people on this island - north and south - the news will be warmly greeted. And for a very obvious reason: it will be a powerful symbol that times are indeed changing, that another hoary old shibboleth is biting the dust.

The symbolism is in itself of immense importance, with commentators already describing it as the last piece in the peace process jigsaw.

Hmm. Not so sure about that. But Northern unionists will be comforted that - symbolically at least - the peace process isn't all one-way traffic and that it isn't only their attitudes which have to change for the 'greater good'.

People in the South - caught up in economic meltdown - will welcome the visit because it will be a massive signal of national self-confidence and an important act of solidarity in difficult times. If it helps cement peace this side of the border, well and good. Few, if any, will get their political knickers in a twist about a state visit from their nearest neighbour.

And yet, rumbling away in the background, we will have the motley crew of diehards and blowhards.

Gerry Adams, still finding his footing in Southern politics, speaks with forked tongue: "As republicans, Sinn Fein is very aware of the symbolism of a state visit by Queen Elizabeth of England and of the offence it will cause to many Irish citizens. Particularly victims of British rule and those with legacy issues in this state and in the North. We are also very conscious of the attitude of our unionist neighbours."

Not the Eliz-a-Brit of old but not exactly a welcome on the mat either.

Expect a lot of this kind of stuff, not least from Gerry's pals and ex-pals. Some will take the high road ("as republicans we oppose all monarchy'' and/or "given the economic meltdown we shouldn't be spending money on protecting the Queen''). Some will take the very low road indeed ("the Union flag's a butcher's apron'', "the Queen's links with the Army''). Blah blah blah.

Unionists will be tempted into the catcalling but they should ignore the bile.

Because it's the roaring of dinosaurs. Wily ones admittedly, but dinosaurs all the same. Their aim won't be to say their piece and slink off to the shadows where they belong but to stir up antagonism, to stir up a 'debate' - any debate - where we are forced back to our tribes once again, against our better judgment.

Get ready for all the old cliches to be dragged out about the Queen and Prince Philip, Queen Victoria and the Great Famine, the need to apologise for this or that historical event - right back to Dermot MacMurrough.

You'll also get unionist dinosaurs needling about how the 'Republic' has failed and wouldn't it be better if they all rejoined the Commonwealth and the 'offence' they take at the broadcasts of the Angelus.

Still, when you strip away the posturings and get down to it, the symbolism of the visit is really quite simple.

It will show that the political cultures of these islands are catching up with the complex and multifarious lives of their people.

This isn't the Northern Ireland/Ireland of 50 (or even 20) years ago, wrapped up tight in their rigid certainties. On Friday night thousands of loyal true blues - driven to distraction by the lack of anything else to watch - tune into The Late, Late Show on RTE. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands in the Republic watch X Factor, Coronation Street and EastEnders.

Everyday, we meet the other culture and you know what? The world doesn't end.

The point is that this isn't a visit to or even about 'Northern Ireland'. That's on the periphery, yes. But this is principally and mainly a state visit to that place called 'Ireland' - closing one chapter in the history of two adjacent islands and opening an entirely new one.

These cultures operate by symbol and HM's itinerary in Ireland will include landmark moments, some painful, some joyous, but all significant and driving change deep into the psyches of the 'two traditions' Britain helped create. Moments just as seismic as the playing of the National Anthem in Croke Park some years ago.

We're all ready for those now. Bring them on.

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