'For the vast majority, it was time for this day'

Thu, May 19, 2011, 01:00

REACTIONS:THE VERDICT of those who attended the wreath-laying by Queen Elizabeth and President Mary McAleese at the Irish National War Memorial Gardens yesterday was unanimous: another taboo swept away; another chapter closed; another milestone along a long road travelled together.

“For the vast majority of the people of this island, it was time for this day, and they were glad to see it happen,” said Archbishop Alan Harper of the Church of Ireland. “This has been a significant staging post in our journey together. It has shown that while it may not be possible to rewrite history, it is possible to move beyond it.”

Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson hailed what he described as a solemn, yet relaxed, historic occasion. “Everyone remembers the past, but we have to look to the future. But there are clear indications, as a society, in the UK and Republic people are moving on. They want better relations and we are in a new era.”

Mr Robinson said it was disappointing Sinn Féin had declined to attend. “It would have been an excellent opportunity to show respect for traditions that have otherwise not been shown that respect in the past,” he said.

Edward Stevenson, Grand Master of the Orange Order, said he was “delighted” to see the Queen at the ceremony. “Hopefully the relationship between Britain and Ireland will now move to another level where we can behave like proper grown-ups with each other,” he said. “When they played the British national anthem today, you could hear folks singing, and it was the same when they played the Irish national anthem. It was striking to hear all that in the same setting.”

Former PUP leader Dawn Purvis said she was “overwhelmed” by the emotion of the day. “I sat there thinking about the decade of centenaries we are about to enter together and I remembered my own family’s involvement in the Great War. I was moved when the Irish Tricolour was raised to full mast in memory of those who had fought in that war as Irishmen and Irishwomen. This is another part of our shared history on this island.”

Sammy Douglas, DUP Assembly member for east Belfast, said the Queen’s visit was a crucial turning point. “As someone from the unionist community, I feel it was long overdue. I had a lump in my throat today at the thought of how far we have come. The symbolism of this visit is very powerful and encourages us all to keep on the path we are on.”

Some 20 loyalists, including senior UDA figures such as Jackie McDonald of south Belfast, John Bunting of north Belfast, Jimmy Birch of east Belfast, and Billy McFarland of Derry and north Antrim, were also present at the ceremony.

Mr McDonald said he was proud to take part. “It shows that there is a relationship and an association between Northern Ireland and the Republic. People need to be aware of the similarities and the sacrifices, especially in the wars. I think it is a time for them to come together and appreciate each other’s pasts and give ourselves all a better future,” he said.

“I always thought the Troubles would never end in my lifetime, and in many ways they still haven’t really, but there is a kind of peace. We need to build on that.”