Britain's Queen Elizabeth remembered as bridge builder in Ireland

·3-min read

By Padraic Halpin

DUBLIN (Reuters) -Britain's Queen Elizabeth was warmly remembered across Irish politics from the prime minister to Irish nationalists Sinn Fein for the role she played in repairing relations between the two countries.

The queen in 2011 became the first British monarch to visit the Republic of Ireland since independence from London almost a century earlier, a step Prime Minister Micheál Martin described on Thursday as being crucial in the normalisation of relations.

She made powerful gestures of reconciliation for Britain's bloody past in Ireland during the hugely successful four-day state visit, culminating in a powerful and personal speech in which she expressed regret for centuries of conflict.

"During those memorable few days, the Queen did not shy away from the shadows of the past," Ireland's President Michael D. Higgins said in a statement.

"Her moving words and gestures of respect were deeply appreciated and admired by the people of Ireland and set out a new, forward-looking relationship between our nations – one of respect, close partnership and sincere friendship."

The queen's use of the Irish language, once banned under British rule, to begin her landmark address drew an audible grasp from then Irish President Mary McAleese and a spontaneous round of applause from the guests at Dublin Castle, the former nerve center of British rule in Ireland.

Other symbolic moments included the laying of a wreath to those who died fighting the British crown and stepping out onto Dublin's Croke Park stadium, the scene of a massacre of 14 people by British forces almost a century earlier.

Her description of the two countries as "firm friends and equal partners" put relations with the former colony at an all-time high following an at times difficult few decades after the 1919-1921 War of Independence brought an end to British rule.

Thirty years of bloodshed between Irish nationalist militants, pro-British "loyalist" paramilitaries and the British military in British-run Northern Ireland brought particular strain before a 1998 peace deal that was brokered by Irish and British leaders.

While that paved the way for the Queen to come to Dublin, she travelled many times to Northern Ireland, including during "The Troubles." Her cousin, Lord Mountbatten, was among the 3,600 victims during the conflict, killed in 1979 by Irish Republican Army (IRA) militants.

A year after her visit to Ireland, the queen shook the hand of former IRA guerrilla commander and then deputy first minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness in Belfast, one of the last big milestones in a peace process studied around the world.

The Northern Irish leader of McGuinness' Sinn Fein party, the ex-political wing of the IRA that wants to end British rule and unite with the Irish Republic, offered her "sincere sympathies and condolences" to the Queen's family.

"Personally, I am grateful for Queen Elizabeth’s significant contribution and determined efforts to advancing peace and reconciliation between our two islands," Michelle O'Neill said in a statement.

(Reporting by Padraic Halpin, additional reporting by Amanda Ferguson in Belfast; Editing by Angus MacSwan)