Historic meeting bridges 700 years of mistrust: Many will see grounds for hope in the meeting between the Queen and

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The Independent Online
QUEEN ELIZABETH II and the president of Ireland, Mary Robinson, held a historic meeting at Buckingham Palace yesterday. They spoke privately on momentous matters (not least murder and mayhem in the territory to which both their governments lay claim), but under constitutional constraints were unable to repeat publicly the gist of it. 'She made us feel very relaxed and at home,' Mrs Robinson said.

The Irish President was only nine when the Queen was crowned in 1953. While appearing, ostensibly, to have little in common, both women personify their peoples' wish to transcend a quarrel neither softened by innocence nor refined by policy. In more general terms, they share a view that the only title-deed upon which a government can rightly rely is the quality of the service it renders to the governed. On either side of the Irish Sea, the quality of service has been found wanting.

Therefore the private nature of the 30-minute meeting - the first between an Irish president and a British monarch - did not detract from its symbolism. Of the troubles in Northern Ireland, the president said there was a 'yearning for peace'.

Aware of increasing contacts between people on either side of the Irish border, she could perhaps give the Queen 'some indication of that as part of the conversation,' and illustrate the closer relationships 'between Ireland and Britain'.

Accompanied at the meeting by her husband, Nicholas, she said: 'The Queen greeted us in a very friendly and cordial way.'

For her part a smiling Queen told Mrs Robinson: 'It was very nice to meet you.'

What passed between the two heads of state is unlikely to alter much the strategies of those trying to plot the future (the British and Irish governments, the Ulster Unionists, the IRA). But it may indicate to the British and Irish alike that if two, intelligent, well-motivated, concerned women can meet warmly and constructively, undeterred by history or the continuing violence, then there may be hope yet.

Mrs Robinson's courtesy visit to the Queen bridged seven centuries of mutual mistrust between Ireland and its former colonial masters. Since her election last year, she has reached out a hand of friendship across the border to both sides of the sectarian divide where 3,000 people have died in the IRA's battle to reunite her country by force. While the Irish constitution forbids the president from playing a role capable of being interpreted as political, she sees herself as a promoter of national improvement. As a passionate idealist she expects the improvement to be great; but as a realist her idealism is qualified by her knowledge of history.

In her three-day visit to Britain, President Robinson, an authority on European law, was awarded a doctorate in civil law by Oxford University (a similar honour was withheld from Margaret Thatcher).

She also met representatives of Britain's Irish community in Camden, north London. Last night she addressed the Royal Academy of Arts at a dinner in her honour. This morning, some fences mended, she was due to return to Dublin.

(Photograph omitted)