Irish Republicans praising the queen was once unthinkable. Elizabeth II changed that.
Operation London Bridge, the lengthy, well-rehearsed strategy triggered by the death of Queen Elizabeth II, was implemented on Sept. 8, a few hours before her death. The elaborate civic liturgies of the British monarchy and state are considered awe-inspiring or absurd, according to the perspective of the viewer.
And reactions to the passing of Britain’s longest-serving monarch have ranged from some rare voices of dissent to piles of marmalade sandwiches left in the royal parks. The broad response to Queen Elizabeth’s death has been one of appreciation for her personal qualities and her role as a societal touchstone that helped hold the diverse kingdom together.
This response was echoed by the Irish political establishment. The Irish president and our taoiseach (Ireland’s prime minister) paid sincere tributes to the late queen, the Irish flag was flown at half-mast, and Dublin’s lord mayor opened an official Book of Condolence in Elizabeth’s honor.
What came as something of a shock—especially to some of its supporters—were statements issued by the leaders of Sinn Féin, the party most associated with the Irish Republican Army.
The tributes and gestures from the leaders of Irish political parties long established in the European mainstream came as no surprise. What came as something of a shock—especially to some of its supporters—were statements issued by the leaders of Sinn Féin, the party most associated with the Irish Republican Army, which, at various times over decades in both the north and south of Ireland, had been at war with the crown.
Michelle O’Neill, the leader of Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland (who will be first minister if and when the Northern Irish assembly is restored), moved quickly to publish a comment that was deeply respectful of Elizabeth and explicitly sympathetic to the feelings of Northern Irish Unionists.
“It’s with deep regret that I learned of the passing of Queen Elizabeth II,” she said in a statement released on Twitter. “The British people will miss the leadership she gave as monarch. I would like to offer my sincere sympathies and condolences to her children, and wider family as they come to terms with their grief. I wish to especially acknowledge the profound sorrow of our neighbours from within the unionist community who will feel her loss deeply.” She added, “Personally, I am grateful for Queen Elizabeth’s significant contribution and determined efforts to advancing peace and reconciliation between our two islands.
“Throughout the peace process she led by example in building relationships with those of us who are Irish, and who share a different political allegiance and aspirations to herself and her Government.”
The party’s leader in the Republic, Mary Lou McDonald, demonstrated similar poise in her statement, which saluted Elizabeth’s contribution to the transformation wrought on the island of Ireland. “To the Royal Family and all who mourn the death of Queen Elizabeth, especially Irish Unionists, I extend sincere sympathy,” she said in a statement also released on Twitter.
A conciliatory response from Sinn Féin was not conceivable even in 2011, when party leaders refused to participate in any events related to Elizabeth’s visit.
“She lived a long, full life. In her lifetime relationships between our countries were changed and changing. I salute her contribution to this transformation.”
There are a lot of reasons why such statements coming from Republican leaders would have stunned the Irish people not so long ago. But over the years it was the queen herself who laid the foundation for such an unexpected moment of potential reconciliation.
Ireland, as a republic, is constitutionally opposed to monarchy. But like its European ally, France, it recognized Elizabeth II as a stateswoman and a person of courage and dignity. The positive regard that President Emmanuel Macron expressed for Queen Elizabeth is shared by many Irish citizens, the roots of that esteem were planted during her visit to Ireland in 2011, almost 90 years after the country achieved independence from the United Kingdom.
The manner in which the late queen conducted herself on that historic trip has not been forgotten. When, at a formal state banquet, she stood to address the gathered dignitaries and began by speaking in Irish, the then-president of Ireland, Mary McAleese, could be seen to respond, “Wow.” Queen Elizabeth addressed Ms. McAleese by her official title in Irish— uachtaráin—and referred to everyone else in the room as friends (agus a chairde).
Ms. McAleese, a civil rights lawyer from Belfast, called the visit “a culmination of the success of the peace process” and “an acknowledgement that while we, none of us, can change the past, we have chosen to change the future.”
Over the years it was the queen herself who laid the foundation for such an unexpected moment of potential reconciliation.
Elizabeth’s willingness to meet Irish people halfway in that process arguably affected popular opinion more than any law or decree ever could. On that trip she sparkled in conversation with traders in a famous Cork city market and enjoyed a pint at the home of Guinness.
She even made a visit to Croke Park, the Gaelic sports stadium where British forces killed 14 people during a match in 1920. While there were some small protests during her visit, most Irish people were willing to extend a warm welcome and were delighted at how enthusiastically it was met.
Building on the success of this visit, she returned to Ireland the following year. In her 2012 visit to Northern Ireland, Queen Elizabeth met Martin McGuinness, then deputy first minister and a leading member of Sinn Féin. Mr. McGuinness, who died in 2017, had been reputed to be a military leader of the I.R.A. in Northern Ireland during “the Troubles.” When Elizabeth reached out her hand in friendship to him, she was going beyond her role as a dignitary, embracing someone who was associated with a movement that not just politically opposed her reign, but had intended to personally harm her.
In 1979 the I.R.A. assassinated her cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten, with a bomb detonated at his home in Sligo. For Elizabeth, “to choose to change the future” in this fashion was personally costly, and Irish people respected her for it.
In the years since Queen Elizabeth’s visit, Sinn Féin has established itself as the largest party in Northern Ireland and become the most popular party in the Republic of Ireland. Establishment commentators and older members of the electorate—who remember with revulsion the atrocities of the Troubles—are ambivalent at the prospect of Sinn Féin someday leading the Irish government. The party has not only failed to repudiate its past connections with a terrorist organization, but, governed by a kind of supreme council, Sinn Féin continues to function very differently from standard contemporary political parties.
But the reaction and statements this week from the leaders of this explicitly Irish republican political party to the death of the British monarch suggest the possibility of new relationships within Ireland and between Ireland and the United Kingdom. A conciliatory response from Sinn Féin was not conceivable even in 2011, when party leaders refused to participate in any events related to Elizabeth’s visit.
That the party commonly known as the political wing of the I.R.A. is able to gratefully acknowledge the virtues displayed during Elizabeth’s reign indicates a dramatic shift in Ireland’s political and cultural ground. Just days after his elevation, in fact, King Charles III arrived in Ireland and was quickly joking with Ms. O’Neill that her party’s ascent must irritate Unionist hard-liners who remain loyal to his own crown.
It is the end of an era of British history, and it appears that one of the legacies of Elizabeth’s is a hope that a new era in Irish history is emerging, where sides that were irrevocably divided can find common ground. The past cannot be changed, but Elizabeth’s example shows that if we confront it honestly, we can move on to a better future. Sinn Féin appears to understand this, and it is crafting now a new political narrative that few would have anticipated.