The entwined history of Britain and Ireland has been complex, bloody, fruitful and intimate, and a state visit is not an occasion for detailed analysis or political initiative. However it does present an opportunity for symbolic gestures which may have as much transformative power.
The past week, in which the Queen made her first visit to the Irish Republic, has been a demonstration of this, and the Irish people have greeted her, her words and her actions with widespread warmth.
She attended Croke Park, the Gaelic football field where British troops shot dead 14 civilians during a game in 1920. She bowed her head and laid wreaths in acknowledgement of those who died fighting against this country for Irish freedom and also of those who died fighting beside us during the First World War.
Perhaps the most emotionally charged ceremony was her one official speech, delivered at the state banquet at Dublin Castle (until 1922 the headquarters of British rule in Ireland). She began with the words: "A Uachtarain agus a chairde" – "President and friends". In her use of the Irish language, ruthlessly suppressed for centuries, was a gracious recognition of Ireland's independence and culture and a hand extended in friendship to an equal partner.
The Queen did not go on to apologise or express regret, but in eloquent words she captured a sentiment that most people on both sides of the Irish Sea could share: "With the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all."
Her words set the seal on a process of re-conciliation that has not been easy for either side. Begun 15 years or so ago, it has now reached fruition. Whatever difficulties may come, relations between the two countries will no longer be informed exclusively by the antagonisms of the past. We should be grateful that the Queen, in her ninth decade, represents the better angels so well.Reuse content