EVEN in a week when the death occurred of former taoiseach, Dr Garret FitzGerald, Ireland is still basking in the glow of a feel-good factor.
The reason is that the two best-known figures from either side of the Atlantic became first-time visitors and won the hearts of the nation. Queen Elizabeth II, accompanied by her husband, Prince Philip, became the first reigning British monach to set foot on Irish soil since gaining our independence, when she arrived on Tuesday of last week.
Her landmark four-day visit, apart from a few protests, some of which descended into violent exchanges with gardaí and the sight of baracaded empty streets in Dublin, created endless positive images.
While US President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle’s visit was crammed into all of 12 hours on Monday, it nevertheless made quite an impact.
Taking centre stage along with the British and US VIPs were President Mary McAleese and Taoiseach Enda Kenny. The eyes of the world were also fixed on them for a week but there were no trip-ups. They said all the right things, did the right things and their timing and choreography was perfect.
It has emerged that Enda borrowed parts of President Obama’s inauguration speech for his address in Dublin but this has been explained as being quite deliberate and complimentary. In any event, this will soon be forgotten as the benefits of President Obama’s brief vist unfold.
There were a couple of highly significant moments in both visits.
In the case of Queen Elizabeth, one moment was when she paused and bowed her head after laying a wreath in the Garden of Remembrance, a shrine to those who died in pursuit of Irish freedom. She also underscored the cordial and healing nature of the visit when, at the State dinner hosted by President Mary McAleese, she opened her speech in Irish with, “A Úachtaráin agus a chairde”. She also spoke of the importance of forbearance and conciliation and of being able to bow to the past but not be bound by it.
Refering to the shared history between Ireland and Britain, the Queen said, “Of course, the relationship has not always been straightforward or the record over the centuries been entirely benign. It is a sad and regrettable reality that through the history, our islands have experienced more than their fair share of heartache, turbulence and loss. To all those who have suffered as a consequence of our troubled past, I extend my sincere thought and deep sympathy.”
While non-political, the royal visit will nevertheless have a huge impact on future political relations between Ireland and Britian, which have improved beyond measure in recent years.
President Obama’s visit was, of course, intensely political and the President played to his strengths. In Moneygall, County Offaly we saw a very relaxed and comfortable Obama meeting distant relatives and practically everybody else in the small community; affirming his Irish legacy.
In his College Green speech, Obama was not only wowing his immediate audience but was also sending out a rallying call to the Irish-Americans, whose votes he’ll be relying on for his re-election bid.
“We’re people, the Irish and Americans, who never stop imagining a brighter future, even in bitter times. We’re people who make that future happen through hard work and through sacrifice, through investing in those things that matter most, like family and community,” he added.
“Ireland, if anyone ever says otherwise, if anybody ever tells you that your problems are too big or your challenges are too great, that we can’t do something, that we shouldn’t even try – think about all that we’ve done together. Remember that whatever hardships the winter may bring, springtime is always just around the corner. And if they keep on arguing with you, just respond with a simple creed, Is féidir linn. Yes, we can. Yes, we can. Is féidir linn.”
The presence of Queen Elizabeth in Ireland when 85-year-old Dr Garret FitzGerald died on Thursday last, has been noted as symbolic in that it encapsulated the measure of his achievements.
Dr FitzGerald served two terms as taoiseach in the 1980s and his work in pioneering peace initiatives in Northern Ireland is acknowledged as one of his greatest political legacies. He also steered Ireland towards becoming a more pluralist and open society and viewed things very much in a broad European context. He always advocated that Ireland, without losing our national identity, could still be European in outlook.
A man of great intellect, Dr FitzGerald was universally admired and following his retirement from politics in 1992 was always considered to be even-handed in his analysis of government and economic policies over the years. He often expressed a contrary opinion to that espoused by Fine Gael, something that Fianna Fáil took comfort in.
President Mary McAleese described Dr FitzGerald as “a man steeped in the history of the State who constantly strove to make Ireland a better place for all its people”.
“His thoughtful writing, distinctive voice and probing intellect all combined to make him one of our national treasures. Above all, Garret FitzGerald was a true public servant,” she said.
Even though we mourn the passing of Dr FitzGerald, we can celebrate his life’s achievements. His death at a time when Queen Elizabeth was on Irish soil is in itself a tribute to the man’s quest for peace on this island, a quest that has also been embraced by all Irish, Northern Irish and British political parties. Thanks to the efforts of politicans like Dr FitzGerald, the Queen came to Ireland to meet people as equals not as subjects.
Queen Elizabeth, Barack Obama and, even in death, Garret FitzGerald stole the headlines for a week. We enjoyed a small taste of euphoria and live in the expection of many more positive stories to follow on the strength of the Queen and President Obama’s visits.