Tuesday 12 November 2019

Alison O'Connor: This is no time for protest -- let's embrace a rare chance to shine

Britain's Queen Elizabeth makes her first state visit to Ireland this month
Britain's Queen Elizabeth makes her first state visit to Ireland this month

Alison O'Connor

If good things come in threes, then we might be in for a bumper month of May. It could well mark the start of a run of sorely needed good luck for Ireland. Just imagine, Jedward kicking it all off with a Eurovision win and the upward trajectory continuing with the visits of Queen Elizabeth and US President Barack Obama.

Whatever about the rather dubious honour of the first, the latter two events do not just have the possibility of being good for Ireland, but in combination could present a spectacular opportunity for us.

Our international reputation is in such tatters it's hard to imagine how we might even begin to turn it around. All the world has heard of us for the past few years is of how spectacularly we crashed and burned.

At best, international obser-vers probably imagine we are hardly capable (despite our reputation of expertise in this area) of organising a booze-up in a brewery.

It used to be that the eye of the world media would be upon us for events such as the Ryder Cup. But any recent visits from the foreign press have concentrated on our failures. Even more sadly, the overseas journalists have had diversionary tales for their home audiences such as whether then TD Jackie Healy Rae (wonderful flat cap footage for the foreign audiences) would vote with the then government or not, or whether another deputy named Michael Lowry would manage to swing a massive casino for Tipperary.

But in these two high-profile visits of a queen and a president, we have been handed two mega opportunities. It's apparently impossible to calculate, but there has been speculation that last weekend's royal wedding in London attracted some two billion viewers around the world.

I bet a whole load of them had a passing thought at some stage during the fairytale broadcast that they must get in a visit soon to London. It also struck how well-organised the entire thing was, and how it went off without a hitch. How nice even a fraction of that sort of exposure could be for us. Think of all those helicopter shots being beamed around the globe.

According to some estimates, on the queen's visit alone, around 500 British journalists have sought accreditation, and there has been major world media interest. A US president travelling anywhere outside of the US is a major international event. If it is one whose ancestry has been repeatedly called into question and he's looking up his family tree, then it's all the better.

Those who are considering protests at either or both visits should think long and hard about their intentions. It's true that in the space of 60 seconds one could come up with any number of well-founded reasons for taking to the streets with a placard in protest at either or both visits.

But in this instance you need to keep the placard in the wardrobe and think of the greater good of Ireland.

This is not to belittle the suffering of the relatives of those killed in the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, the 37th anniversary of which occurs during the queen's visit, or to forget the plight of Iraqis in their war-torn country, or to ignore the centuries of oppression that we suffered at the hands of the marauding English.

It has already been said that the queen has avoided doing an "easy" trip for her first state visit here; that her itinerary includes a visit to Croke Park, something which could easily have been dismissed on the grounds of being diplomatically uncomfortable.

During the initial planning, it had been thought officially that she would only come for three days. However, she made it four, and by including things like the Rock of Cashel and the National Stud it means we get to showcase some of what is so important to Ireland -- our tourism and bloodstock industries.

Let's face it -- the woman could easily have left the Rock of Cashel off the programme, but by going there she is doing us a favour. Visiting Trinity College gives us a chance to show off our historical buildings, while the magnificent stadium that is Croke Park will show off our more modern splendours.

Of course we must be mindful of the past, but there is little point in remaining captured by it. I find President Mary McAleese's bridge-building analogies a little bit tiresome at times, but in this particular case we do need to simply build a bridge and get on over it.

We all know that for a long time the relationship was utterly unbalanced but we are now equals and friends. It's the seventh time that Mrs McAleese and the queen will have met, and no doubt when they both stand up to address the state dinner in Dublin Castle in their respective speeches they will reflect the new status.

There is far less historical baggage attached to the Obama trip. All going well, he should be delighted to be here -- first the presentation of his birth cert at home, and then the meet-and-greet with the relatives in Moneygall. The Irish-Americans will lap it up.

This trip really is down to an element of luck, pragmatism and it appears, presidential curiosity, being slipped in ahead of a state visit to the UK.

So for all those around the world tuned in to either or both visits we, not just the politicians, need to present a picture that we are still standing and worth a visit, despite what they've heard about us recently. And, of course, as Taoiseach Enda Kenny would say, that we're open for business.

Irish Independent

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