Friday 28 November 2014

Martina Devlin: Petty point-scoring now firmly a thing of the past

Published 19/05/2011 | 05:00

GAA president Christy Cooney presenting Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip with a hurley and sliotar at Croke Park, Dublin, yesterday
GAA president Christy Cooney presenting Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip with a hurley and sliotar at Croke Park, Dublin, yesterday

THERE were people who turned down an invitation to meet Queen Elizabeth and people you couldn't have kept away with a battering ram. There were people who wore their medals on their chests and people who wore their heart on their sleeve.

Yesterday was a day when colours were pinned to the mast, and we realised Union Jack and Tricolour could fly side by side, as happened at Government Buildings, without the heavens tumbling down.

It was a day when people showed where they stood on the question of the royal visit -- and the majority stood in the same spot, as close to majesty as they were allowed.

It was all about journeys round the city of Dublin for our House of Windsor guests, from the Dail to a tourist attraction, from a war memorial to a sports ground synonymous with the bloody struggle for independence. But most of us made something of a journey ourselves.

Anyone in doubt had only to listen to GAA president Christy Cooney's address at Croke Park. He won my man of the match award with his pithy but evocative speech which registered a score in just a few sentences.

"Your presence does honour to our association," he told the queen. "Today will go down in the history of the GAA." And so the reconciliation continues.

Elizabeth's visit to this nationalist shrine, with its voluntary and amateur ethos and its all-Ireland reach, was a goodwill gesture from the monarch next door in a week of friendly signals.

She could have toured a hospital or a museum. Instead, she reached out to the Gaelic Athletic Association. While not everyone met her halfway -- only one of the Ulster counties agreed to attend the Croke Park event -- their right to stay away was recognised without rancour.

Christy made a reference to attending the funeral of Ronan Kerr, the PSNI officer and GAA player killed in Omagh by dissident republicans last month. He said the peace process was "irreversible" -- an article of faith shared by most of us.

But when he also described the GAA's foundation in 1884 as an act of national regeneration, I couldn't help thinking how we're sorely in need of another renaissance.

Still, this is meant to be an upbeat week. We're supposed to be projecting into the future, not inspecting wounds -- even recent wounds inflicted by our own people.

The queen looked suitably grateful to receive a limited edition copy of the GAA's history, but it seemed overly optimistic to presume it would end up on her bedside reading pile. Dick Francis racing novels are surely more to the taste of a woman with a lifelong fondness for the sport of kings.

Still, Philip handled his gift of a hurley stick with enthusiasm, and when Christy told him he could play it in his back garden the prince showed restraint by not stating the obvious -- that Croke Park would fit umpteen times over into his back garden.

It was a shame the royal visitors didn't see this landmark venue in full throttle, especially when they took such an interest in gaelic games. The queen wondered about similarities with the Scottish sport of shinty, and heard they were first cousins.

The President told her a sliotar can travel at 50mph, so helmets, shin guards and sometimes a glove are worn. "If they (the players) don't catch it, their teeth could easily catch it. Dentists like Martin can make a fortune," she said -- a lively exchange indicating small talk between the two heads of state isn't confined to the weather.

And so to Islandbridge, in whose tranquil setting a lone piper played. Where poppies were worn and nobody turned huffy. Where UDA brigadier Jackie McDonald lined up among a guest list that included Orangemen and clergymen, TDs and MLAs, war veterans and pacifists.

Where, too, some chose to stay away as they were entitled to do. Still, I thought it a shame Martin McGuinness refused his invitation to stand shoulder to shoulder with Peter Robinson.

The two co-operate well together in the Northern Executive and the First Minister might have appreciated the Deputy First Minister beside him in Dublin, a city that was once anathema to him. Martin McGuinness's hand wouldn't have fallen off if it was shaken by the queen.

Some of us made journeys and some of us chose not to travel, despite being told it broadens the mind.

What a fumbled ball it was for Sinn Fein, a party which could be considered the country's most significant, with seats in both Stormont and Leinster House.

After all, the queen was in the Republic as a guest rather than as a ruler touring her dominions -- her position during visits in the North. Still, if her trip was postponed until everyone backed it to the hilt, we'd be waiting till doomsday.

There was much talk of a break with the past, though history sprang to mind when Elizabeth sat beneath a portrait of Michael Collins in the Taoiseach's office during her visit to Government Buildings. Some say Collins gave the British a good deal during the treaty negotiations.

But I say we should keep off all wars, as firmly as the queen kept her hands away from that pint of frothing Guinness in the Storehouse.

The red carpet was rolled out for her at the entrance to the tourist destination, just as it is spread for her wherever she goes.

Who knew we had so much red carpet in the country?

Come to that, who knew we had so many top brass military? Who knew we had so many dignitaries? It felt like a trial run for 2016.

LAST night Elizabeth was due to speak publicly -- well, if you were an invited guest -- for the first time, with an address in Dublin Castle that's been eagerly awaited. Although, personally, I was almost as impatient for a glimpse of Iris Robinson -- virtually invisible since her relationship with a teenager emerged.

Iris was accompanying her husband Peter to the banquet. Maybe all been forgiven, even marital and financial impropriety, in the healing balm of a royal visit.

Irish Independent

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