Queen Elizabeth in Ireland Royal Charm Offensive Has Irish Eyes Smiling

Her outfit was a symbolic green, and a rare smile was planted firmly on her face -- Queen Elizabeth II made all the right gestures at the beginning of her state visit to Ireland. But a fear of violence continues to overshadow the four-day stay.

REUTERS

To bow or not to bow -- the question had been occupying the Irish media before the arrival of the important guests from London. The Irish Times cartoonist wryly joked that Irishmen no longer had to bow before the Queen -- at most, they had to bow before the European Central Bank. Thanks to the bailout following the financial crisis, the ECB is now considered to be the new foreign ruler in Dublin.

The Irish Independent, however, was clear: There is only one golden rule of conduct on the sudden approach of a small woman with a big hat: "Do Not Touch The Queen." Bowing is certainly not necessary; only British and Commonwealth subjects are required to do that.

In the end, there were no bows when Queen Elizabeth II arrived on Tuesday for her four-day state visit to Ireland -- apart from on the part of the Queen herself. She lowered her head in a moment of silence and laid a wreath in the Garden of Remembrance, the Dublin memorial for "all those who gave their lives in the cause of Irish freedom."

One Huge Moment

It was a historic gesture of reconciliation of the kind the Queen hopes will define her visit. She has come to draw a final line under the bloody past of the two close neighbors. As the royal party set foot onto Irish soil at a military airport in Dublin, BBC correspondent Mark Simpson remarked that it was one small step for the Queen, but one huge moment in British-Irish history.

From the moment she arrived in the Republic, the Queen started her charm offensive. The coat and hat she had chosen for the occasion were in the famously Irish national color of green, and then she turned on the beaming smile, a rare look for her.

It is the first time in a century that a British monarch has visited Ireland, and the tension surrounding the guest is correspondingly high. The Irish people won their independence from the British Crown in 1922 after years of bloody conflict -- and the scars have not healed completely. A portion of the population is still hurt by the division of the island of Ireland into the Republic of Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland.

And so on Tuesday the Queen's motorcade was forced to travel through deserted streets which had been closed off and secured by the massive police presence. Contact with ordinary people was considered too risky. Even before the Queen's arrival, a bomb was defused near Dublin on a bus heading into the Irish capital; an apparent attempt by militant splinter groups to grab the headlines.

Violent Scuffles in Dublin

Protesters also tried to disrupt the wreath laying at the Garden of Remembrance, a sacred place for Irish Republicans. The police had cordoned off a large enough area that the Queen would not have been able to see any demonstrators -- but she would have heard them. They engaged in violent scuffles with police at the barricades on Dublin's famous O'Connell Street, throwing stones, lighting firecrackers and setting a Union Jack, the British national flag, on fire. The protests, though, were small. Most of the approximately 4.5 million-strong Irish population welcomed the state visit, according to surveys.

The Irish government was surely relieved that the first day passed without major incident. But there are still three days of the visit left. On Wednesday, the Queen is set to visit Croke Park, one of the most powerful symbols in Irish minds of British oppression. The home of Gaelic sports, the stadium was the scene of the notorious incident in 1920 when British forces shot dead 14 people during a Gaelic football game. Then, at the state banquet at Dublin Castle in the evening, the Queen will give the only speech of her trip: It has been speculated that she will include some words of regret for past violence.

Even if no apology is forthcoming, the visit is already a success on both sides of the Irish Sea. The fact that the British head of state is making a visit to Ireland after so many decades, with the Republic now being treated on equal terms, is gesture enough for many Irish. "It is at last possible to say that the relationship between Britain and Ireland is simply normal," said the Irish Times.

Same Music, Same Humor

In fact, relations between the two EU partners are closer than ever. Six million people in the UK are Irish or have Irish ancestors. They watch the same TV shows, listen to the same music and share the same sense of humor. "No neighboring countries, even those sharing a language like Canada and the United States, have closer ties than Ireland and Britain," writes the Irish Independent.

The Irish press has been satisfied to report that the country's President Mary McAleese can now look eye to eye with the Queen as equal heads of state. The president had invited Queen Elizabeth to come to Ireland as long ago as 1998, following the signing of the groundbreaking Good Friday Agreement which laid out the framework for a political solution to the Northern Ireland question.

The fact that it took so long for the visit to take place shows how particular the relationship still is between the two countries. Full normality, said Irish historian Sean Duffy, would only be achieved "when we can be bored by the arrival of the Queen of Britain in Ireland."

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