Historic Ireland visit by Queen Elizabeth II requires balancing act by British monarch

UK head of state will pay gestures of respect to both sides of the neighbouring country's sectarian divide - and visit the Guinness brewery, as well as hear the Chieftains and Westlife and see the Book of Kells.

Members of the Republican group Eirigi gather on O'Connell Street in Dublin to demonstrate against the visit of Britain's Queen to Ireland.
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DUBLIN // When Britain's Queen Elizabeth II lands in the Republic of Ireland today, her arrival will be largely symbolic, but this is an island where flags and symbols have been the stuff of political life for centuries.

The programme for her four-day visit has duly been designed to build on the Good Friday peace deal of 1998. That accord sought to end 40 years of political violence in Northern Ireland - still a part of the UK - and reduce antagonism between Northern Ireland's predominantly Catholic nationalists and mainly Protestant pro-British unionists.

In carefully balanced gestures to both communities, the Queen is to lay wreaths at Dublin's Guardian of Remembrance, which commemorates those - mainly Catholics - who died fighting for independence from her kingdom, and at the Irish War Memorial, which honours the Irish who fought and died in both world wars, mostly in the service of the British crown.

She is also to visit the Croke Park sports stadium, sacred to nationalists both as the home of the Gaelic Athletic Association and as the site of the infamous "Bloody Sunday" massacre, in which British troops shot dead 14 civilian spectators at a football match.

Among those crossing the border to attend the War Memorial will be the Democratic Unionist first minister of Northern Ireland, Peter Robinson, representatives of the British Legion and the Orange Order, and several leaders of the Ulster Defence Association, once a paramilitary organisation notorious for a campaign of nakedly sectarian murders against randomly abducted Catholics.

The UDA's main Catholic enemy, the Provisional Irish Republican Army, has since disarmed as part of the 1998 peace agreement. But its political wing, Sinn Fein, is thriving on both sides of the border, forming the junior partner in Northern Ireland's ruling coalition and challenging for the leadership of the opposition in Dublin's parliament.

True to its staunch anti-British and republican heritage, Sinn Fein has condemned the visit and refuses to take any part in official proceedings. But nor is it mobilising its well-drilled supporters in protest, and police believe that the main threat of disruption comes from small republican splinter groups.

In a faintly conciliatory speech last week, Sinn Fein's leader in the Republic, Gerry Adams, said he hoped the visit would help to build a new relationship between Britain and Ireland, "but much will depend on what the British monarch says".

Although no scientific poll has been conducted of public attitudes towards the Queen's visit, the national mood seems to be supportive.

Tim Pat Coogan, one of Ireland's most distinguished journalists and historians, said: "There is no hostility towards it as far as I can see except in traditional republican circles. People will give her the usual Irish welcome once she gets here."

The old nationalist dogmas that founded the state have faded in recent years, and most citizens of the Republic are far more concerned about the recent collapse of their "Celtic Tiger" economy.

Much of the latter part of the Queen's four-day programme is shaped by the Irish government's desire to showcase Ireland's appeal as an international tourist destination. There will be trips to see the famous Book of Kells, to sip a glass of beer in the Guinness brewery and to visit the scenic Rock of Cashel and to see Cork City's produce-vending English Market. An indoor "garden party" will feature performances by such artists as the Chieftains, Westlife and the Riverdance troupe.

The horse-loving monarch will visit the centres of Ireland's famous bloodstock industry, including the Irish National Stud near beautiful Kildare Town.

Behind the pomp and ceremony there will also be some real politics. The British prime minister, David Cameron, has chosen this week to make his own first visit to Dublin since taking office. He will be closeted with his Irish counterpart, Enda Kenny, at a time when Ireland shows signs of moving closer to its former colonial power on the European stage.

The country is burdened with a massive debt crisis, due both to Ireland's own profligacy and to the machinations of the European Union and the European Central bank, and Irish politicians have in recent months noticed that the British are their closest allies in efforts to win debt forgiveness from Europe.

As Ireland's biggest trading partner, Britain has no interest in seeing its cousin driven to bankruptcy. The 85-year-old Queen's welcome may be all the warmer for that.