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Stephen Collins: Monarchy’s positive role in Anglo-Irish relations could have a political spillover

Differences on the protocol are minor: the real problem is symbolism and Queen Elizabeth demonstrated the enormous power of symbolic gestures

The respect shown in this country over recent days for the late Queen Elizabeth and the new King Charles III was hugely symbolic and provides a welcome reminder that what appear to be fundamental differences can be bridged by courageous and generous leadership.

On the resumption of the Dáil on Wednesday members stood for a minute’s silence in honour of Queen Elizabeth. Ceann Comharile Seán Ó Fearghaíl described the late queen as “a truly magnificent and inspirational head of our neighbouring state whose years of dedicated service is truly without parallel”.

Expressing his sympathy, Taoiseach Micheál Martin acknowledged that there were many people “on this island who looked upon Elizabeth as their queen” while Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald acknowledged the presence of the British Ambassador, Paul Johnston, in the distinguished visitor’s gallery and extended her “profound sympathies” on the occasion.

A day earlier there was a dignified exchange at Hillsborough Castle between King Charles III and Sinn Féin leaders Michelle O’Neill and Alex Maskey. Given the bitter animosity of Irish republicans to the British crown for more than two centuries, the response of the party’s leaders to the queen’s death has been remarkable.


Exactly 100 years ago, this country was in the throes of a bitter civil war which was fought over the role of the British monarch in Irish political life. Contrary to widespread popular belief, it was the relationship of the new state to the Crown rather than the partition of the island which was at the root of that conflict.

More recently, the assassination of British ambassador Christopher Ewart-Biggs in Dublin in 1976 and the murder of the late queen’s uncle, Lord Louis Mountbatten, off the coast of Sligo in 1979 revealed the depth of bitterness and hate that continued to motivate some Irish republicans.

It was the personal connection between the queen and Mountbatten that gave such deep meaning to her extraordinary speech at Dublin Castle in 2011 which the eminent historian Simon Schama described last weekend in the Financial Times as “the most eloquently thoughtful of her entire reign”.

That speech referred to the fact that violence had “touched us all, many of us personally”, clearly referred to the Mountbatten episode, but it also contained a number of memorable lines including the observation that while we should “bow to the past but not be bound by it”.

Sinn Féin boycotted that historic dinner in Dublin Castle in 2011, despite the entreaties of President McAleese, but a year later Martin McGuinness and the queen engaged in the famous handshake in Belfast that cemented the positive impact made by her State visit.

Paying his first visit to the North as King, Charles III told political leaders that his mother had felt deeply “the significance of the role she herself played in bringing together those whom history had separated and extending a hand to make possible the healing of long-held hurts”, before going to pledge: “Now, with that shining example before me, and with God’s help, I take up my new duties resolved to seek the welfare of all the inhabitants of Northern Ireland.”

The new king had visited Northern Ireland on 40 previous occasions and made the first official visit of a British royal to the Republic in 1995, at a critical stage in the peace process. He has made a further seven official visits since then and has expressed a wish to visit every county in Ireland.

The big question now is whether the positive role the monarchy has played in relations between Ireland and Britain can have a spillover impact on the political arena, where real difficulties remain in relations between the two countries and between the communities in the North.

The Taoiseach, who has been invited to attend the queen’s funeral on Monday, is expected while in London to hold talks with prime minister Liz Truss, with the contentious Northern Ireland protocol expected to be a topic of conversation. During her leadership election campaign, Truss continued with her tough line on the protocol and there were suggestions that on taking office she would immediately invoke Article 16 to modify its provisions.

Having won the leadership election, she backed away from an immediate confrontation. The death of the queen has provided further breathing space before the next chapter in the long-running dispute between the UK and the EU over the application of the protocol.

Earlier this week, EU chief negotiator Maros Sefcovic promised that the trade border between Britain and Northern Ireland would be invisible provided that EU officials were given real-time data on trade movements. He said there was almost no difference between the UK demand for no checks and the EU offer of “minimum checks done in an invisible manner”.

To date, the emollient approach of Sefcovic has not prevented the UK unilaterally extending the grace period, due to expire next week, for the introduction of trade checks. The EU has responded with legal action and the position remains deadlocked.

As spelt out by Sefcovic, the practical difference between the two sides is not all that great. The real problem is symbolism, and here both sides have something to learn from the actions of the late queen.