The sight of Union Jacks being waved on Irish streets is an unlikely prospect. Yet organizers of a royal visit to Ireland hope that republican sentiment will be overwhelmed by majesty.
Signs indicate a nuanced response.
Independent of British rule since 1921 – or 1919, depending on how you calculate it – the Republic of Ireland will host the queen just six days before a second state visit by President Obama.
Quick to capitalize, Ireland’s tourism authority has labeled May “the month of welcomes.”
For three days, Queen Elizabeth will tour Ireland, including notable – in some cases contentious – locations in the capital, Dublin. Those include the Garden of Remembrance, a monument to those killed in Ireland’s war of independence from Britain, and sports stadium Croke Park, the site of the 1920 killing of 14 civilians and three republican operatives by the British Army in reprisal for the killing of 14 British agents by the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
Senior political figures have welcomed the visit as a reconciliatory move.
Speaking after a meeting with his British counterpart in April, Prime Minister Enda Kenny said: “I made the point that the vast majority of Irish people will welcome very warmly the Queen to Ireland.”
Mr. Kenny previously described the event as a sign of the “growing up of two countries and two peoples.”
“It comes logically from the 1998 referendum [in support of the peace process in Northern Ireland]. At some stage relations between the two countries have to be normalized and visits of heads of state are part of that,” he says.
A taciturn public
The public, however, is thus far notable by its absence. It is unimaginable that a crowd won’t turn out, at least to glimpse the spectacle, but the general response has been taciturn – despite Irish public distaste for British monarchy being at an all-time low after the recent wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.
Catherine O’Regan, a translator from Dublin, says she was nonplussed by the question.
“I don't think I have an opinion on the Queen's visit,” she says. “I think that the main reason behind that is that she is not really relevant to me. “I find it funny that the gardaí [police] have spent the last two weeks checking every sewerage hole in the city and marking them with yellow paint, yet no visible effort has been made to clean the dirt and grime off Dublin streets and pavements.”
Not all state visits are equal: “Now, Obama I'm excited about. Pity we, the public, probably wont get a chance to see him,” says Ms. O’Regan.
Hopes of normalization of attitudes between the countries ignore the fact that the two states already co-operate and citizens have, politics aside, always moved between Britain and Ireland.
Gerard Casey, professor of philosophy at University College Dublin, says ambivalence is a reflection of Britain's relative significance in the world rather than a deep commitment to republican principles.
“The King of Denmark could arrive and no one would care – it’s the same thing,” he says.
According to Professor Casey, the absence of interest stands in sharp contrast to euphoria over the forthcoming appearance of Mr. Obama later in May – despite his own lack of interest in the US president.
“The Irish people recognize who wields actual power in the world, the president of the United States, so we’re all weak-kneed at the prospect of him visiting for a day.”
There are indications that public opinion is complex, and the highly symbolic visit is not without critics. Six people asked by this reporter, two experts and four people on the street, declined to offer any comment on the visit and several more did not respond to enquiries, implying reticence to go on the public record on the matter.
Realpolitik governs Sinn Féin response
Sinn Féin, the traditional voice of Irish republicanism, has been relatively quiet. While not happy with the British monarch being afforded a state visit, it is now deeply embedded in the powersharing government in Northern Ireland, so realpolitik has dampened the party’s objections.
Instead of protesting, Sinn Féin is organizing “alternative events” and urged anyone who does protest to do so peacefully, hoping to avoid rioting as was seen during a 2005 march by pro-British loyalist groups in Dublin.
One group will be out in force to voice discontent at the royal presence on the streets of the republic. Éirígí (the Irish word for “Arise”), a small socialist splinter from Sinn Féin, is planning a series of protests.
Chairman Brian Leeson says the party will organize two main events including a protest near Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance.
Leeson says objection to the visit is a matter of principle: “She is the commander in chief of the British armed forces and Britain’s head of state,” he says. “5,000 British troops are still based in this country and the British state claims jurisdiction over a part of Ireland.”
“There is a reason why there hasn’t been a British monarch in this city for 100 years – they’ve not been welcome. There’s no way [the majority of] the public would have worn it,” he says.
Visit starts on a tragic anniversary
Perhaps the single most contentious issue is timing: the visit coincides with the anniversary of the bombings of Dublin and Monaghan. The single largest death toll of the Irish conflict, the twin bombs on May 17, 1974, killed 33 and injured approximately 300. Pro-British loyalist militant group the Ulster Volunteer Force claimed responsibility for the attacks, but many in Ireland have long suspected British security forces colluded in the bombings.
Margaret Urwin of the campaign group Justice for the Forgotten says she is meeting with Ireland’s deputy prime minister, Eamon Gilmore, asking him to encourage the British government to release documents thus far withheld from the Irish government’s judicial inquiries.
“Effectively, it’s our 9/11 in proportional terms,” she says.
Could there be an attack?
Protests may be unwelcome as far as the authorities are concerned, but the real threat lies in terrorism. A veritable alphabet soup of dissident republican groups, including the so-called Real IRA, Continuity IRA, and a new grouping simply calling itself the IRA have stepped up actions in Northern Ireland recently. The latter group claimed responsibility for the fatal bombing of Police Service of Northern Ireland officer Ronan Kerr in April.
“It’s extremely unlikely, not because they wouldn’t want to do it – self-evidently they would – but because the security measures are all-pervasive. The amount security anywhere she [the Queen] goes is extraordinary,” he says, noting the massive security effort in London for the recent royal wedding.
An attack of some kind outside the Republic of Ireland, a concern raised by security analysts, is a more likely possibility, says Hayes.
“They [the dissidents] might do something as a spoiler of to notify people of their discontent,” he says.
Today British police revealed dissidents had issued a "non-specific” threat warning of an attack in London.
The revelation today that members of the Ulster Defence Association, a pro-British militant and vigilante organization, have been invited to meet the queen, has further enraged republicans.
Both the Garda Síochána, the police in the Republic of Ireland, and the Police Service of Northern Ireland declined to comment on security arrangements, though police have been sweeping the city, including sewers, looking for suspect devices and questioning staff working in businesses along the route.
Security for the back-to-back state visits is rumored to have cost $43 million, a fact that has not gone unnoticed in recession-hit Ireland.
“I have no problem with forking out for events that might boost Ireland's image and morale – although I still don't fully understand how the queen coming to Ireland is good for the country – but I do have a problem when money is badly spent and that's probably what is happening,” says O’Regan, the translator.