Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Ireland loves the family affairs of the Windsors

Don't be fooled by Republican Sinn Fein and Eirigi's sabre-rattling: the Royal family are as popular as ever in the Republic. Henry McDonald reports

Eamon de Valera probably turned in his grave at the sight of a British Royal on the front page of one of his beloved newspapers.

It was back in 1992 and the whole of Britain - and, yes, let's admit it, Ireland too - was enthralled, fascinated, even a little tickled, over the revelations of Princess Diana and Prince Charles' disintegrating marriage.

The tabloids labelled the scandal 'Squidgygate' - the taped conversations of Princess Di and her lover - for which the Sun was charging premium phone-line rates so the scandal-loving public could listen in.

But the UK red-tops were not the only section of the media on these islands salivating over Diana's affairs - or the revelations that Prince Charles was a cold fish who preferred the company of an older divorcee called Camilla.

Dublin papers, too, were saturated with lurid coverage of the Royal couple's infidelities and indiscretions, including one of de Valera's once-mighty organs.

As an innocent young northerner, who had just emigrated south for a career-change after several gruelling, soul-sapping years covering the Troubles, I was perplexed that, for several days in one single week, the Evening Press published photograph after front page photograph of Diana.

When I asked my then-news editor - a journalistic genius from Derry who also happened to be a brother of former Undertones frontman Feargal Sharkey - why the evening paper of the de Valera family chose to put the wife of the heir to the British throne on page one, I was met with a polite, knowing smile.

"When the RTE Guide publishes Di or Fergie on the front of its magazine, sales go up dramatically," Mick Sharkey informed me.

So it made sense, he added, that the Evening Press followed the same commercial logic and made sure Diana's fragrant face beamed out of the front page as often as possible.

No one, therefore, should be surprised that, after nearly nine decades of independence, a large and significant section of the Irish populace remain fascinated with the antics of the family formerly known as Battenburg who reside at Buckingham Palace and make a living out of asking other people what they do for a living.

The Queen will, of course, be met with some protests when she arrives for her historic visit to the Republic on May 17.

There may even be trouble on the streets of central Dublin, although the republican hardliners opposed to the Queen's presence will get nowhere near her, or the Duke of Edinburgh, due to the massive security operation - estimated to cost up to €5m.

Those republicans opposed to the peace process will hope to recreate the scenes of 'Love Ulster' day a few years ago, when unionist victims of the Troubles came to Dublin and the event ended in riots and chaos across the centre of the Republic's capital.

For organisations such as Republican Sinn Fein, Eirigi and the 32 County Sovereignty Committee, the Royal visit provides a space to raise their profile and organise their activists.

Conversely, the visit poses a problem for Sinn Fein, which is now very much in the peaceful, constitutional club within the Dail and beyond. While the party opposes the visit, the likes of Martin McGuinness have stated that they do not want any protests turning violent.

The party's high command knows fine rightly that violence, mayhem, injuries and damage to businesses and tourism along Ireland's most famous thoroughfares would be deeply unpopular with the overwhelming majority of people in the Republic.

They will recall that, during the 'Love Ulster' disturbances, youths - many of them inebriated - took advantage of the trouble to loot shops in O'Connell Street, such as Foot Locker, where they snatched trainers and tracksuits out of smashed-up windows. All this was happening within sight of terrified tourists, many over for a rugby international weekend.

For Dublin, the 'Love Ulster' riots turned out to be a lost weekend when gardai lost control of the streets having underestimated the level of opposition to the unionist march.

Unlike 'Love Ulster', this time around the Garda are better prepared and a plan has been put in place to create distance between the venues the Queen will visit and the anti-monarchist protests.

Moreover, the demonstrations - while potentially violent - will arguably not reflect the majority opinion among people across Ireland.

Because, even long after Di's death, the Royals still provide all us commoners, from time to time, with a real life soap opera as addictive and eagerly followed as the TV soaps that are so popular on RTE and TV3, like Corononation Street and Eastenders.

And, if you don't believe that just, check the viewing figures in Ireland for the forthcoming marriage of Prince William to Kate Middleton in a few weeks time.

For the sake of Eamon de Valera at rest, maybe it is just as well that his Evening Press is no longer around to record his contemporary compatriots's ongoing fascination for the Royals.

Sadly, the great paper overlooking the Liffey closed down in 1995 following an industrial dispute, but the southern Irish reading and viewing public's interest in the House of Windsor survives.

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