Queen tours Irish racing centre as visit tone lightens

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Queen Elizabeth II indulged her passion for horses on Thursday as her historic visit to Ireland took on a lighter feel after two days laden with reconciliation and symbolism.

The queen was shown around the National Stud in Kildare, the heart of Ireland's rich tradition of racehorse breeding, and was later to be treated to a celebration of Irish singing, dancing and fashion.

The monarch, who breeds racehorses herself, and her husband Prince Philip put a trainee woman jockey through her paces on a racing simulator in a visit which ushered in a more relaxed second half to her historic four-day trip.

On Wednesday, the queen expressed regret and "deep sympathy" to the victims of Britain and Ireland's turbulent shared history in a speech seen as a barometer of relations between the neighbours.

Although she stopped short of a full apology for Britain's actions when it was Ireland's colonial ruler, she said it was "impossible to ignore the weight of history" and those who lost their lives could never be forgotten.

Speaking at a banquet in Dublin Castle, the former seat of British colonial power, she said: "With the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all."

The carefully weighted words added to the theme of reconciliation in the first visit by a British monarch to Ireland since it gained independence in 1922.

She has laid wreaths in memory of fighters for Irish independence and Irish soldiers who died fighting for Britain in World War I, and visited Croke Park, the site of a massacre by British troops in 1920.

"It is a sad and regrettable reality that through history our islands have experienced more than their fair share of heartache, turbulence and loss," the queen said in her keynote speech.

"These events have touched us all, many of us personally, and are a painful legacy. We can never forget those who have died or been injured, and their families.

That passage was viewed as a reference to the 1979 murder in Ireland of Earl Mountbatten, the uncle of the queen's husband Prince Philip. The attack was carried out by the IRA at the height of its fight against British rule of Northern Ireland.

The queen added: "To all those who have suffered as a consequence of our troubled past I extend my sincere thoughts and deep sympathy."

As the queen is a non-political figure with little formal power over her governments, it is not within her role to deliver apologies, but British newspaper The Times said it came "as close as anyone could have dared hope to apologising".

Simon Coveney, Ireland's agriculture minister, said the queen's visit had been a welcome tonic for a country still suffering from the collapse of its once-booming economy.

"Ireland hasn't had a whole lot to be positive about over the last two and half years. This week is a really positive good news story in a really significant way and we should be cherishing that," he told AFP during the National Stud visit.

He revealed that the queen had requested to meet young people on Thursday -- most of the visit has taken place in emptied streets amid high security because of fears of attacks from dissidents opposed to the Northern Ireland peace process.

"The request before coming here was the capacity for informal discussion, particularly with young people, she wanted that," Coveney said.

One of the most significant moments in the visit came on Wednesday when the queen went to Dublin's Croke Park stadium, where British forces killed 14 people in 1920 in a reprisal attack as Ireland's independence struggle raged.

For many Irish citizens, pictures of the British monarch at such a bastion of Irish freedom were the most powerful symbol of reconciliation.

© 2011 AFP

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