It's usually pretty hard to get excited about Queen Elizabeth II visiting other countries. The four-day visit she began today, however, is different. Ireland shares a language, a border and an awful lot of history with the UK, yet this was the first visit by a British monarch in more than 100 years, and the first since Ireland became an independent nation-state in 1922. It can only happen at all because of the peace process which culminated in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The Queen's visit has put a seal on the new chapter that it opened, in a surprisingly beautiful and moving gesture.
It came when she lay a wreath at the statue of the children of Lir in Dublin's Garden of Remembrance, dedicated to the memory of "all those who gave their lives in the cause of Irish Freedom". It is a monument, in other words, to all those who fought against the Queen's ancestors, beginning with the 1798 Wolf Tone rebellion through to the 1921-22 Irish War of Independence.
Laying a wreath at the garden, which was opened by Eamon de Valera in 1966 on the anniversary of the 1916 Easter Uprising, is standard protocol for state visitors to Ireland. But the decision not to excuse the Queen from doing so was a brilliant one. There could have been no better symbol of peacemaking than the Queen, standing next to President Mary McAleese, standing in silent remembrance of those who died for Irish independence; to see her bow her head in tribute to the dead; and to hear 'God save the Queen' being played by an Irish army band in that place. It was a mark not just of respect but of the common humanity which transcends war and politics.
She began the visit wearing green in Phoenix Park, once the seat of the Crown in Ireland, where she planted a tree. As she rode in cavalcade through Dublin, the streets were entirely empty; a massive security operation, the largest and most expensive in Irish history, has kept people well clear of her following threats by hardline Republicans. (A bomb was discovered last night on a bus from the suburb of Maynooth. Dissident Republicans are thought to be responsible). Just over 10 per cent of Irish people opposed the Agreement, and are against this visit. They made their feelings known in small demonstrations well away from the Queen, with black balloons and posters that read, "Britain out of Ireland".
It is a shame that the TV pictures show empty streets, because most Irish people have welcomed the visit. Ireland, confident as a European country, has less need to define itself against Britain. The two nations remain deeply intertwined. What we saw today was how far relations between the two governments have strengthened and normalized -- to the point where they can take risks with their most sacred symbols for the sake of peace.