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Saturday 20 September 2014

Why the praise heaped upon 'Liz Windsor' is more than justified

Gerard O'Regan

Published 05/04/2014 | 02:30

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Queen Elizabeth (L) shakes hands with Pope Francis during a meeting at the Vatican. Reuters
Queen Elizabeth (L) shakes hands with Pope Francis during a meeting at the Vatican. Reuters
Queen Elizabeth leaves after a meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican April 3, 2014. Photo: Reuters
Queen Elizabeth leaves after a meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican April 3, 2014. Photo: Reuters

IN another life she might be known simply as Liz Windsor. She may well have ended up as a typical British housewife with a husband and grown-up children, thanking the gods for relatively good health having celebrated her 87th birthday in April.

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But the woman we now know as Queen Elizabeth could never have had what might be termed even a remotely ordinary existence. From birth, her pathway was mapped out. Tradition, coupled with chance and circumstance, would determine nearly everything she did.

She has had a long life – and has seen and heard much. There are enduring memories from her childhood and early teens in the 1930s, up to becoming a prominent member of the royal family during World War Two. Then, in 1953, she got what the late Princess Diana once labelled "the top job'' in British royalty.

Various books written about her paint a picture of a woman who, since the coronation, has taken her role and responsibilities seriously – maybe too seriously at times. There seems to have been few enough opportunities for real fun. Over the years the only occasion the queen has let her guard down – and has laughed heartily in public – has been at race meetings. Unabashed enthusiasm can rarely be restrained when one of her horses is first to stride past a winning post.

More often than not, she has a serious, almost sullen, demeanour as she traverses around yet another public function, complete with hat, trademark handbag and a dutiful Prince Phillip the standard two paces behind. Constitutionally she must keep so many private thoughts to herself. And there are indeed countless secrets she will take to the grave. It's a fine line a British monarch must tread in the modern age, but breeding and years of experience have ensured she has never put a foot wrong.

For example, there has been much gossip over the years as to how she viewed "her prime ministers'' at the usual 6.30pm Wednesday meeting between the monarch and the head of government. Labour leader Harold Wilson got on with her so well he said it was the only time he could have a confidential conversation with somebody who wasn't after his job. On the other hand, relations with Margaret Thatcher were reportedly somewhere between businesslike and frosty.

The queen's direct power is limited and her office is now largely one of symbolism. But the ancient traditions that surround it, coupled with her determination to play a role in fashioning events, means she is still one of the world's most influential women. Yet it would be scarcely imaginable even a few years ago that she would have done so much to end the old quarrel between Britain and Ireland.

There are many reasons for this – most importantly the timing was right. A consensus deal had been agreed to try and heal the running sore that was Northern Ireland. And in the Republic, the majority of the population was open to a new and more sophisticated way of viewing the world at large – including relations with our neighbour.

Yet the accolades that have been heaped upon her, for the discernment and insight displayed on her visit here, have been more than justified. When she bowed her head after laying a wreath in the Garden of Remembrance, it was as if centuries of hostility and mistrust, seeped away. For both islands a new time had arrived. There could be no going back to some of the old ways.

Like many a statesperson in their winter years, the queen knows time is not on her side. She will remember a quote from former Prime Minister William Gladstone, well over a century ago, who during a high point in the Land Wars and Home Rule agitation exclaimed: "My mission is to pacify Ireland''. Despite his best efforts – he never did. In a way she has succeeded where he and so many others failed.

This week, also, she made another historic journey when she met Pope Francis in the Vatican. The ghosts of Martin Luther, the Reformation, Henry VIII all hovered in the background. The leaders of two religions came together for a shared moment of memory and fleeting unity. Making Ireland more at ease with itself, touching base with the separated brethren of Roman Catholicism, is completing some unfinished business for Queen Elizabeth as she ponders her life's work. Not everything can be resolved; the legacy of wrong done on all sides can be unforgiving. But she knows she can make a difference.

"To all those who have suffered as a consequence of our troubled past, I extend my deep sympathy. With the benefits of historical hindsight, we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently, or not at all,'' the queen told us in her Dublin Castle address two years ago.

That should be enough for Catholic, Protestant, and Dissenter. For Green and for Orange. Let us all go forward.

Irish Independent

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