Shh(it), it’s the Queen: Elizabeth II’s ghost-town visit to Irish Republic

Article published on May 17, 2011
Article published on May 17, 2011
It has been hailed as the culmination of the Anglo-Irish peace process: the first ever visit of a British monarch to the Republic of Ireland on 17 May. But with Dublin’s streets lying empty, and the terrorist threat level in the north classed as ‘severe’, the visit seems like a very expensive exercise in cynicism

Clad from head-to-toe in emerald green, queen Elizabeth II emerges from her private jet, but to a very different scene to which she is used. A far cry from the gilded wedding procession through London only a few weeks ago, here there are no waiting crowds, no jostling flags, no overnight tents. Under the grey skies of Ireland, the small, remote airport is all but deserted, save for a small assemblage of stiff-backed soldiers and a tightly clustered pen of click-clacking journalists. The smiling, friendly diplomats that greet her do not bow, and they do not curtsey – a breach of decorum that has become a bone of contention with the British press. Hastily, a lone schoolgirl is ushered towards her with a simple posy, and the monarch is immediately bundled into an armoured black range rover.

1911 - 2011

The royal vehicle is blacked out, and all routes that the queen will take through the city are top secret. Live coverage is shaky and strangely distant – video cameras, even those of the Irish national broadcaster RTÉ, are not allowed too near the procession. Dublin’s huge Phoenix Park, one of the largest city parks in the world and home to Áras an Uachtaráin (the Irish president’s residence), is evacuated. In the midst of miles of open green space, the small crowd witnesses a rare event: the playing of the British national anthem on Irish soil. It is followed immediately by an even rarer event: the queen of England standing for the anthem of the Irish Republic. The BBC cuts this part out of its coverage.

Everybody agrees that this is a momentous event for both countries, so where is everyone?

This is the first time that a British monarch has visited the country since 1911, making it the first since the founding of the Irish free state in 1922. The long-anticipated gesture is designed to illustrate the renewed, friendly relationship between Ireland and the UK: the fruit of a painstaking peace process that has seen the establishment of a new, inclusive political architecture in Northern Ireland. Everybody agrees that this is a momentous event for both countries, so where is everyone?

Quiet Dublin

The eerie emptiness will be an ongoing theme of this visit – Dublin has been shut down. The largest security operation in the history of the Irish state has installed twenty-five miles of metal barricades around the capital; the queen will parade through mostly empty streets. Very few ordinary people will catch a glimpse of her. The move protects against potential terrorist attacks, but also addresses the problematic lack of positive, jubilant crowds. As the queen stood for a minute’s silence in the city’s garden of remembrance, protestors were being kept out the surrounding streets with tear gas and riot police. Nevertheless, even above the roar of security choppers, the clamour of distant jeers was distinctly audible.

The media rejoices that the queen can visit Dublin in safety, largely missing the irony that Dublin must first be evacuated

For many, the visit is just another publicity stunt in a peace process that has often been more about photo opportunities than practical change. The media rejoices that the queen can finally visit Dublin in safety, largely missing the irony that Dublin must first be evacuated. Meanwhile, bomb threats were issued in London and Dublin (several devices were found the morning of the visit), a splinter IRA group has re-emerged in the North, and Belfast looks forward to a marching season that promises violence and sectarianism. As the queen dangles her wrist out of an armoured car at empty streets, one has to wonder what these governments are trying to prove, and to whom? The event, by the way, cost an estimated €30 million.

Image: main (cc) stringberd/ Matt/ Flickr