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A new path to a Common Wealth


The euphoria is over. Her Majesty the Queen has gone home. This week, reality will return as once more our enfeebled Finance and Europe ministers, Michael Noonan and Lucinda Creighton, will do a Perp Walk in Frankfurt as gruesome in its own way as Strauss-Kahn's in that New York courtroom.

But this week could be different, if our envoys paused and thought about the real significance of the events of this last week.

Garret FitzGerald shuffled off his mortal coil at a pivotal moment. If anyone could be said to have started the movement which culminated in the wonderful events of this last week, it was Garret FitzGerald with his Anglo-Irish Agreement. Of the Queen's visit, he would have been most proud.

But he also dedicated much of his political life to improving our reputation in Europe. That reputation now lies in tatters as we, in the words of commentators as dispassionate and diverse as Colm McCarthy, Willem Buiter of Citibank Group, Gary O'Callaghan, the Dubrovnik- based academic, and the Swedish Finance Minister Anders Borg, are "bullied" and "played brinkmanship with" by Frankfurt.

Our crime was that our banks, builders and developers borrowed and spent recklessly the cheap money that German and other European banks threw recklessly at us in the good times. And which they now want back at high interest from our taxpayers in the bad times

Who would have imagined, way back when Garret started his Anglo-Irish crusade that, in this low moment, it would be the English who would restore our self-esteem as a nation?

Memory, as propagandists, psychologists and poets know, is the real force which through adversity drives our strength and energy. But surely now we can ditch the toxic memories of centuries (notwithstanding the upcoming 1916 centenary and the excess of comment last week about our suffering at the hands of perfidious Albion) and replace them with the great events of last week.

For now we have a different set of memories. And when our beleaguered emissaries go to meet Merkel or Sarkozy or Barroso or the serried ranks of European finance ministers and ECB officials, imprinted on their hearts will be the memory of two great women who rose above history in the Garden of Remembrance and Dublin Castle.

It was matriarchal, it was feminist and it was truly Elizabethan. But here were two Glorianas -- Elizabeth the Second, Queen of England, and Mary McAleese, the elective queen of Ireland -- surrounded by their prime minister and ministers in a serving capacity.

Without the wonderful coincidence of these two strong women in the right place at the right time, it would probably never have happened. Or it would have been completely different. There was a humanity and a commonness of touch, which, for better or worse, is often absent from the affairs of men.

It is the reason that when the Queen said the "challenges of the past have been replaced by economic challenges", her words jolted. In the mouths of most politicians they would have been platitudes but from her they carried the promise of a new alliance of enlightened self-interest in Europe: the incipient realpolitik of Cameron, Hague and Gilmore.

Elizabeth, at 85, is a wonder to behold. The media wronged her when they said, tongue-in-cheek, that it was all a ploy to get to meet the horses. I don't believe it. "Don't frighten the people," would be her more likely watchword. She has a problematical and at times troubled family. Staying in touch with her children's many problems has clearly kept her growing as a person. Although I can't say it is what accounts for her prettiness.

That the Queen and President McAleese got on so well has to be due more than a little to the fact that Mary McAleese is a Northern nationalist who has a lot more of Britain in her DNA than even she realises (in the same way that unionists have more Irishness in them than they know). It's in the little referencings -- for example, she would have had BBC television decades before we down south did.

Then there's the glamour they brought to the occasions. These were not just wives, glamorous appendages of powerful men. These were women, who in everything they did -- from their fabulous frocks to their confident, classical rhetoric -- exuded the subtle scent of power. In their own right.

They didn't put a foot wrong. And there were many opportunities to do so.

All those steps at the Garden of Remembrance and in Dublin Castle daunted the 85-year-old not one whit.

Queen Elizabeth the Second conquered the hearts and minds in Ireland. But this is not the reconquest of Ireland. Rather it is the prospect of a common wealth.

Sunday Independent

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