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Thursday 13 December 2018

Tim Pat Coogan: This is a significant moment for both of these islands

We're into welcome mode now. Whatever saucy doubts and fears we entertained in the last few weeks about the timing or wisdom of the visit, the queen landed today and it is not only fitting and right that the best foot is put forward but, to be quite blunt about it, there is an extraordinary commercial spin-off to all that is happening.

I have seen a fair few newsworthy events in my time, but I have never seen such a concentration of journalists descending on the country in such a short space of time.

I'm told that I will be one of some 1,200 media people in Dublin Castle today.

That is the kind of coverage of a country or an event that the Bord Failtes and the IDAs slaver over. However, and this aspect of things should not be lost sight of, there is an extraordinary historical significance to the visit, not alone for the fact that its predecessor took place at the turn of the last century, but for the invisible message that hangs in the cloud over Baldonnel as the royal plane taxis to a stop.

That message says the Good Friday Agreement is working.

This is something that I would have thought inconceivable in this month 30 years ago.

Bobby Sands died on hunger strike on the date that this year's North of Ireland Assembly elections were held.

I listened to uninformed commentators, of the younger generation admittedly, talk about how boring an election it was.

So boring in fact that at one polling booth where counting was in progress, the cameraman for want of something to photograph focused on a group of small boys rolling around on the floor, chuckling and playing.



LAUGHTER

Distantly as I watched them, I could hear Bobby Sands' voice saying: "Our revenge will be the laughter of our children." And so it proved.

What a blessed thing is boredom in that context. Its other meaning is normality.

And if ever the relations between two countries could do with a spot of normalisation, it is the Anglo-Irish relationship. We are in the grip of an appalling recession. So appalling that the unthinkable has happened: we have yielded up our sovereignty, economically speaking.

There is no point in asking was it for this the men of 1916 died or, as I sometimes do, think of Michael Collins as Minister for Finance in the underground Dail going about the city at risk of his life ensuring that loans were subscribed to and no waste or robbery ensued.

I contrast him with the people who succeeded him in our day in public life.

Criminal negligence and living the good life at the taxpayers' expense behind the windows of governmental Mercedes, the Government jet and the Galway tent have left us bereft of money or friends in Europe. In this situation if it were never desirable in itself to try to take the gun out of Irish politics, it is more than ever necessary that decent Government-to-Government, person-to-person relationships are built up between Ireland and England.

What would really make this visit one of lasting significance would be for Her Majesty or David Cameron, who has significantly joined the visiting party, to make some acknowledgement of the darker side of the islands' relationship.

Tony Blair's acknowledgment of the famine began the creation of the Good Friday Agreement.

A similar acknowledgement from the royal visitor would put the seal on it.

Whatever quite reasonable reservations people have, either on grounds of republicanism or cost, about the visit, as a high watermark in the two islands' development this is a significant moment.

Unfortunately the gun, though largely holstered, is not totally absent from Irish politics and against the backdrop of a fairly distracted nation trying to cope with emigration, unemployment and unpaid mortgages, Her Majesty cannot expect the broad popular welcome that, say, a Kennedy or even a Clinton could expect even without the differences in the histories.

But it is not the economic woes which weigh most heavily on the visit, it is the huge security risk.

Her Majesty will be driving through empty streets against the backdrop of probably the biggest security operation ever mounted in peacetime Ireland.

All the bright hopes of building on the Good Friday Agreement or repairing our finances could feel not the uplift but the wrath of those 1,200 journalists if someone or some organisation does something crazy while the queen is here. We can only hope that they do not.

The public may not have been the instigators of this visit -- that probably lies to the credit of Mary Robinson and more latterly to the lobbying of Mary McAleese which means that the queen is not coming as a result of a well thought-out shared reaction among the citizens of the republic.

But the fact is that she is coming and there are enormous spin-offs to be garnered from the exercise of that very old Irish tradition: make the visitor welcome.

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