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Visit is healing the wounds of history

THIS is the day which the Lord has made: let us rejoice and be glad. The words of the Psalm seem somehow apt at the near-miraculous sight of a British monarch laying a wreath in honour of those who died for Irish freedom. Perhaps the Lord did have a hand in bringing this day about.

There has been no shortage of prayers during the 30 years of Northern violence; many accompanied by bitter tears. But we can be certain about the tireless effort which so many politicians and leaders of church and community put into making this remarkable act of reconciliation possible.

Among them, a special mention must be made of President Mary McAleese and her husband Martin. She greeted Queen Elizabeth not just as a fellow head of state, but as someone who played a key role in building trust between nationalists and unionists, and closer relations between Britain and Ireland. The mood was enhanced by the obvious close relations between the two women.

It would be impossible to name all those who played a leading role in ending the age-old quarrel between the two countries -- an often bloody quarrel which, some would say, goes back to Baginbun and 1155.

But it would be churlish not to mention, in particular, the work of Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair when they led their respective governments. John Hume was there yesterday to see the ceremonial seal put on his 40-year crusade to persuade everyone that unity is not about land but people.

Very few remain to be persuaded. How few could be seen from yesterday's protests. The kind of people they are could be seen from the disgraceful scenes of violence.

Deluded though they are, they understand that this is not a routine state visit. Perhaps visits by a British monarch or a US president will always be different from those of any other head of state, but future British ones will merely perform the normal job function of cementing good relations. This week is different, and unique.

Even if there were no security threat, it is not really an occasion for walkabouts and hand-waving. Nor do we have to feel particularly excited about having a queen visit the country. The visit is possible only because the Irish question has been settled, and is necessary to give symbolic effect to that fact.

Over the past few weeks, one has regularly heard those who object to the visit complaining about the British claim to jurisdiction over Northern Ireland. But Britain no longer claims jurisdiction over Northern Ireland. Neither does the Irish Republic. The future constitutional position of Northern Ireland is now entirely a matter for its people. Both countries have put their hand to that, backed up by their joint guarantee of equality for all the citizens of the North.

It would not be helpful to state this very often, or very loudly. As a result, many citizens, both North and South, probably do not fully grasp it. Doing so, however, should lessen the unease which many in both the unionist and nationalist traditions may feel in seeing the queen at the Garden of Remembrance -- or on southern soil at all.

Such feelings are instinctive and understandable. The two governments, along with the Aras and the palace, are to be congratulated in not shrinking from these sensitivities by drawing up an anodyne programme for the queen.

They could have avoided powerful symbolism and confined events to places like the Guinness hopstore and the National Stud. But as well as the Garden of Remembrance, the queen will go to Croke Park -- whose historical resonance needs no explaining -- and Cork, the cradle of the War of Independence.

It may be worth recalling that the last political obstacle to a royal visit was the transfer of responsibility for policing to the Northern Executive. The symbolism of this week comes after the even more telling scenes of the GAA and the PSNI acting together at the funeral of the murdered constable Ronan Kerr.

Of course, history cannot be obliterated, nor the past forgotten. There is a stark reminder of that in the campaign, so far unsuccessful, to have London open files on the Dublin/Monaghan bombings. The difficult task of healing the wounds of history is not complete, but we can be glad that the future which beckons is one of healing, not hurting.

Irish Independent