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Queen wraps up Ireland visit hailed as a success

Irish cynics surprised by Queen Elizabeth's sincerity as she nears the end of her historic visit, smoothing over decades of Anglo-Irish tensions

AFP , Friday 20 May 2011
Elizabeth II
Britain's Queen Elizabeth (R) addresses the guests at the state dinner in Dublin Castle as Ireland's Prime Minister Enda Kenny looks on in Dublin, Wednesday, (Reuters).

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II was on Friday wrapping up her landmark four-day state visit to Ireland, which analysts said had exceeded expectations and put Anglo-Irish relations on a new footing.

The sovereign was to visit a medieval fortress and the second city of Cork before returning home after her ground-breaking trip, the first by a British monarch since Ireland won its independence in 1922.

The queen addressed thorny issues head-on in one of the most significant visits of her long reign.

In ceremonies that would have been unthinkable until recently, she laid a wreath in remembrance of those who died fighting to free Ireland from British rule.

She visited Croke Park stadium, the site of the 1920 "Bloody Sunday" massacre perpetrated by British forces which left a deep scar in the Irish consciousness.

And the queen paid tribute to the Irish World War I dead who were virtually ignored at home due to deep unease about them serving in British uniform while their countrymen were battling for independence.

But it was her keynote speech at Dublin Castle, in which she said it was "impossible to ignore the weight of history", that went a long way towards finally healing centuries-old wounds.

The 85-year-old voiced her "deep sympathy" to all those who had suffered "as a consequence of our troubled past", saying the legacy of "heartache, turbulence and loss" was "sad and regrettable".

Patrick Geoghegan, a senior history lecturer at Dublin's Trinity College, said the visit had surpassed his expectations.

"It was really only when watching the speeches in Dublin Castle that it really brought home to me how historic and just how important an event the visit has been," he told AFP.

That the Republic of Ireland had never before had a state visit from across its only border now seems "hard to believe".

"The fact that we have now done that means both countries can move with confidence so I think it has been an extraordinarily successful visit," Geoghegan said.

"Even people who were cynical at the start of the week were moved and touched by the visit by the end of the week."

Doctor Michael Anderson, a research fellow at University College Dublin, told AFP people had been "astonished" by the "sincerity and dignity" shown by the queen.

He said the British monarch beginning her speech in Irish -- which had a stunned President Mary McAleese repeatedly mouthing "wow" -- held "incredible significance" and symbolised the big impact of small gestures.

Anderson said the queen had "gently reminded" people that she too had lost family in the Anglo-Irish Troubles.

Her husband Prince Philip's uncle Louis Mountbatten -- credited with introducing the couple -- was murdered by IRA paramilitaries in 1979.

"She could speak genuinely as someone who had felt the pain and suffering as a victim of the Troubles. That would have rung a bell with a lot of people who would have thought, 'yes, she is the genuine article'," Anderson said.

"It had been "more than a simple photo opportunity visit," he added. "This was a genuine reconciliation of something that went on for 800 to 900 years."

Even Gerry Adams, whose Sinn Fein party was opposed to the visit, praised the speech.

"I hope some good will come from this visit and I particularly was taken by Queen Elizabeth's sincere expression of sympathy to all those who had suffered in the course of the conflict," he told BBC radio.

Threats from dissident republicans opposed to the peace process in British-ruled Northern Ireland and an early rash of bomb alerts failed to overshadow the visit.

Ireland's Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney said most cynics had been won over.

"As the week goes on, Irish people, many of whom were unsure about this visit as to whether it was the right time, are realising this is the right time," he told reporters.

"This is a very genuine reaching out from the British side as well to Irish people from all walks of life and the queen's speech was testament to that."

Former British prime minister John Major said a shift in relations between Britain and Ireland had been cemented.

"The Queen's visit has lifted an old and dark shadow, cemented a modern relationship and prepared the ground for a fertile future," he wrote in The Times.

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