Saturday 20 January 2018

It should have happened years ago

The Queen's visit shows our countries have matured in ways that are easier to feel than to describe, writes former envoy Ivor Roberts

There's something almost biblical about Garret FitzGerald's death during the most symbolic event in Anglo-Irish relations in a generation. "Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace ..." It's as though having worked tirelessly for peace within the island of Ireland and between our two islands, the great statesman had seen the culmination of his life's work and could slip quietly away. The Hillsborough agreement of 1985 which he signed with Margaret Thatcher had finally come to fruition.

The events of the last few days have certainly been transformational. The concerns that the visit of the British monarch might be met by indifference or hostility were confounded. Republican dissident supporters made little impact -- my Dublin taxi driver Declan said he'd heard noisier crowds at a funeral -- and the extraordinary warmth of the welcome was to a Brit heart-warming. The standing ovation in the Convention Centre was visual proof of the new page in the tortured relations between Britain and Ireland. We've come a long way and the journey has often been painfully slow.

It's more than nine years ago, at the time of Prince Charles's visit to Ireland, when I was ambassador in Dublin that an Irish newspaper ran the headline 'Mum's on her way'. I wouldn't have believed it could take so long to realise. It wasn't through any reticence on the Queen's part. It was widely known that she was desperately keen to make a journey which was last made by her grandfather 100 years ago exactly. And it seemed after the signature of the Good Friday Agreement that this would follow quite quickly. But that was to underestimate the legacy of bitterness and violence. In retrospect the negotiation of the Good Friday or Belfast Agreement looks to have been the simple part while the process to implement it has been agonisingly slow.

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