UKAnalysis

Queen Elizabeth and Ireland: From hard feelings to a warm handshake

The queen took risks to promote peace in Northern Ireland, including a meeting with Martin McGuinness that confronted hard truths

Queen Elizabeth II visited Northern Ireland many times during her long reign, providing assurance primarily for the unionist population that the link with Britain was secure, but later working to assist and lock in the peace.

And that can’t have been easy. Both she and the late Martin McGuinness had to step outside their own constituencies when they had their first groundbreaking encounters. Yet there was a personal element to that engagement that was problematic for the British monarch.

In Mullaghmore in Co Sligo in 1979 the IRA murdered Lord Louis Mountbatten, her cousin and her husband Philip’s uncle, as well as taking the lives of two teenage boys and an elderly woman. As an IRA leader, McGuinness may have had a role in organising those killings.

That meeting was in the Lyric Theatre on Ridgeway Street in south Belfast in 2012, the year of her diamond jubilee, and reporters gathered outside the theatre wondered would the drama inside be a damp affair of limp handshakes and formalities grimly observed.

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That wasn’t the case, however. The chief executive of Co-operation Ireland, Peter Sheridan, who organised and was central to the event, described the occasion as “very natural and relaxed”.

It was a “significant milestone on the road to reconciliation on this island and between our two islands,” said Sheridan, who said that the queen was deeply conscious of how important it was to rise to such challenges.

It later transpired that the issue of Lord Mountbatten was raised, if rather carefully. McGuinness told RTÉ's Miriam O’Callaghan: “I also head-on addressed this issue with the queen and Prince Philip when I said to them that I recognised that they too had lost a loved one. I did not shy away from the issue because I think these are things that have to be faced up to.”

For protocol reasons he would not disclose her specific response, but said: “She was absolutely understanding of the need for everybody to work together to ensure we don’t go back to the past so that we can continue to move forward — she was very gracious about it.”

And that was the tenor of those key visits and meetings: that Queen Elizabeth understood she had a pivotal role to play in quietly seeking change and healing, and was prepared to take some risks to advance that objective.

That engagement led to further acts of reconciliation, including more meetings with McGuinness that weren’t as formal. Observers knocked great value out of how two years later McGuinness and Peter Robinson accompanied Queen Elizabeth to the former Crumlin Road Gaol in north Belfast, now a museum, where hundreds of republican and loyalist prisoners, and some politicians, were detained during the Troubles.

Those “guests of her majesty” in the Crum, as it was known when a working prison, included her two guides — McGuinness, who spent five to six weeks there in 1976 on remand facing an IRA membership charge; and Robinson, who was inside for three short periods over protests against the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Dented bonnet

It is interesting to note the pattern of Queen Elizabeth’s visits to Northern Ireland. She first came to the North as a young 19-year-old princess shortly after the end of the second World War in July 1945, visiting Stormont for the investiture of posthumous awards to relatives of the fallen in that conflict.

Twice more she visited as a princess in 1946 and 1949, before making her first trip to the North as queen in July 1953.

She made two more visits — in 1961 and 1966 — before the Troubles broke out at the end of that decade. On the 1966 visit a concrete block thrown at the royal limousine as it travelled along Great Victoria Street in Belfast dented the bonnet. It didn’t discommode the queen who continued on to open a bridge across the Lagan named in her honour, but it was a portent of what was to come.

During the conflict she came to Northern Ireland five times — in 1977, 1991, 1993, 1995 and 1997.

But during the interminable peace and political processes she was a frequent visitor. Every year in 2000-2010, apart from 2004, Queen Elizabeth travelled to Northern Ireland. It was during some of those Northern events that the queen met and built up a relationship with president Mary McAleese that facilitated her visit to the Republic in 2011.

Speaking hat

An oddly memorable visit was in May 2002 when the queen travelled to Stormont where the then first powersharing Northern Executive was finding its feet.

It was decided that she would not speak in the chamber in case Sinn Féin walked out. Instead she gave a televised speech in the marbled hall of Parliament Buildings. But due to a dispute over the positioning of cameras, all that viewers could see of the queen as she spoke was her hat. It was lampooned as the visit of “the speaking hat”.

Her contribution to the peace process was acknowledged by the leaders of Ireland’s main Christian churches in September 2021, when she was forced to cancel plans to attend a cross-community church service in Armagh on medical advice — an event it was understood she had been looking forward to.

The event had already sparked significant controversy over President Michael D Higgins’s decision not to attend the service marking the centenary of partition and the formation of Northern Ireland.

“We wish to convey to Her Majesty our good wishes and, in doing so, to acknowledge the significance of her commitment to the work of peace and reconciliation, which has meant a great deal to people throughout this island,” the church leaders said.

Over those several decades and many visits to Northern Ireland she met people from every walk of life, including in 2009 the Ireland rugby team which earlier that year won the Grand Slam. There was some controversy when outhalf Ronan O’Gara chatted to her with his hands dug in his pockets.

She, as usual, appeared unperturbed and perhaps that discourtesy was ameliorated by O’Gara telling her he had met her grandson, Prince William, on two Lions tours and found him “a lovely young man”.

Sheridan was in no doubt that she was personally and sincerely committed to promoting “forbearance and conciliation” in the North, a phrase she used in her speech in Dublin Castle in 2011.

He believed another quote from that speech summed up how she understood at a deep and historic level the importance of promoting and cementing the hard-earned peace. “She was light years ahead of the politicians in terms of her views on reconciliation and the peace process and that is encapsulated in what she said at Dublin Castle, of the necessity ‘to bow to the past, but not be bound by it’.”