It took 100 years to happen, it was loaded with centuries of painful history and decades of awful violence, and it required 8,000 police officers to make it possible, but it was, when it happened, just a handshake.
At midday on Tuesday, Mary McAleese, the president of Ireland, stepped outside in Dublin, wearing a pink overcoat, and shook hands with her titular equal, Queen Elizabeth of Britain, who arrived wearing a symbolically loaded green hat and coat.
It was a quiet punctuation mark on what was until recently one of the world’s most cataclysmic relationships. The last time a British monarch set foot in Ireland, it was Elizabeth’s grandfather George V in 1911, and everyone had to bow and curtsey because they were his colonial subjects. Five years later, the Irish began to rise up against British rule, and the two stayed apart for a century.
But the world has changed. To the great majority of Irish citizens and leaders, their British neighbours are no longer seen as a former colonial master, but rather as a fellow European Union country, a partner united in recent economic humility. And as such, the royal visit was, in the view of many observers, almost refreshingly boring.
For many young Irish, the preferred foes these days are the Germans, whose banks and government have imposed punishing bailout terms on their emergency loans to rescue Ireland’s economy. Britain, which offered loans without conditions, is just another country, and Tuesday was just another visit by a foreign head of state, perhaps not as exciting as next week’s arrival of Barack Obama.
Nevertheless, the visit was in large part a time for the unfinished business of post-colonial healing. Later Tuesday, the Queen, now dressed in white, laid a wreath in honour of the hundreds of Irish men and women who died resisting British rule under her grandfather’s reign – a gesture that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.
As she dedicated the wreath, about 100 radical Republican protesters chanted, burned a British flag and threw bottles from several hundred metres away, separated by a far larger number of police. And a bomb had been found on a bus outside Dublin on Monday, likely left by one of the splinter groups of the now-disbanded Irish Republican Army. But none of this was major by Irish standards, and the day passed without serious incident – and also without major crowds.
“Most Irish people are very relaxed about the visit,” said Sean Duffy, a historian at Trinity College in Dublin. “We are looking forward to a day when we can be bored by the arrival of the Queen of Britain in Ireland.”
Given the history of violence and still-active terrorist groups in neighbouring Northern Ireland, the visit was treated with enormous care. Earlier this week, a Dublin property developer tried to welcome the Queen by hanging an enormous photo of her on the outer wall of one of his downtown hotels, provoking shock among some. Security officials made him remove it.
The visit puts a punctuation mark on the Northern Ireland peace process that began with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and has resulted since in a power-sharing government that unites Republicans and Unionists in a semi-independent Belfast legislature.
Some feel that it is too soon for the heads of state to meet, given that republican terrorist splinter groups are still active in the island’s north (though they have no political role or objectives).
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, whose party now holds the premiership of Northern Ireland, complained about the visit, though he agreed that it provided a useful moment for dialogue. Other more radical republicans had stronger words, and the pop singer Morrissey called the Queen “fascist” for continuing to reign over the province.
But for most, that history has happily ended. Indeed, the Queen will be dining Tuesday with two of the key figures in the achievement of Northern Irish peace, the politicians David Trimble and John Hume, who were the key authors of the Good Friday Agreement.
It is only since this peace was reached under Britain’s erstwhile Labour government that it could have been possible for a British Queen to visit Ireland as an equal head of state. Even 20 years ago, this visit would have been an unthinkably shocking provocation at a time of horrible violence; instead, her green-suited arrival under overcast skies Tuesday was a welcome demonstration of the banality of peace.
“We need to be equal partners on this archipelago,” Dr. Duffy, the historian, concluded, “and that’s what’s being resolved in the next few days.”