British queen visits hallowed Irish massacre site

18th May 2011, Comments 0 comments

Queen Elizabeth II Wednesday visits an Irish stadium where British troops massacred 14 people, trying to heal old wounds in a historic step that would have been unthinkable for most of her reign.

On the second day of her groundbreaking visit to the Republic of Ireland, the ageing sovereign will set foot inside Dublin's Croke Park, the spiritual home of Gaelic sports and the site of a bloody British reprisal attack in 1920.

Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Eamon Gilmore told AFP that the British monarch walking out on the revered turf would be a "hugely symbolic" moment.

Her visit to the stadium with a near mythical role in Ireland's independence struggle will be followed by a visit to an Irish war memorial and a rare speech at Dublin Castle, the former seat of British power on the Emerald Isle.

While noting the vast improvement in Anglo-Irish ties since a peace deal in British-ruled Northern Ireland, the queen is expected to tackle the tensions that have meant she is the first British monarch to visit the Irish republic.

A massive security operation is in place for the visit, which both of the neighbouring states have hailed as a watershed after decades of unrest in Northern Ireland and centuries of bad blood across the Irish Sea.

The fanfare surrounding the queen's arrival has contrasted with the eerily empty streets of Dublin due to a lockdown exclusion zone in in the city centre, with snipers posted atop nearby buildings.

Wednesday's itinerary begins on a lighter note with a trip to the famed Guinness brewery, where cameras will be waiting for the 85-year-old monarch to raise a glass of the black stuff.

One of the country's top tourist destinations, the site takes visitors through the brewing process behind one of the world-famous cultural symbols of Ireland.

The most sensitive parts of the day come with a visit to the Irish National War Memorial Garden, dedicated to the 49,400 Irish soldiers killed in World War I.

Many feel that Ireland's war dead from the 1914-1918 conflict have too often been forgotten because of deep unease over them serving in British uniform while Ireland's independence struggle raged.

The queen and her husband Prince Philip then head to Croke Park, the stadium considered by many as a central symbol of Irish republicanism and independence from British rule.

The visit to the 82,300-capacity venue, which will be closed to the public, was "part of the making of a statement about the past", Gilmore said, but would also acknowledge the key role that Gaelic games play in Irish life.

The royal couple will also meet Prime Minister Enda Kenny at his offices and Gilmore.

The queen is not ducking any of difficult issues that remain between the two countries, although British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the hosts should not expect to hear apologies for Britain's colonial rule during her speech.

"We're not glossing over the past here," Hague said Tuesday. "It is about recognising those events of the past, acknowledging those events but also showing how we can move on to the future."

But the healing process is a long one after a history of bloodshed since King Henry VIII of England pronounced himself King of Ireland in 1541, sparking half a millennium of repression, rebellion and famine.

Former Irish president Mary Robinson said there would be "significant disappointment" if the queen's speech sidestepped tough issues.

Tuesday's first day saw the queen lay a wreath in honour of those who died fighting for Irish freedom from Britain, bowing her head in respect at the Garden of Remembrance.

The playing of "God Save the Queen" at the ceremony was also a significant moment.

But there were rowdy scenes outside where several hundred republican protesters, kept streets away, chanted and torched a British flag. Twenty-one people were arrested.

The threat from republican paramilitaries who oppose the Northern Ireland peace process resurfaced when a "viable" pipe bomb was defused outside Dublin amid a string of security alerts on Tuesday.

© 2011 AFP

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