DUBLIN, Ireland — This year, Queen Elizabeth II will become the first English sovereign in almost a century to set foot in Ireland — at least the part of it not under British rule.
Thus, a social conundrum faces Irish politicians: As good republicans, should they bow or curtsy to the queen?
Appearing obsequious could damage a politicians career in a country where the British crown has long been a symbol of oppression, but ignoring royal protocol might seem ungracious and ill-mannered.
It has taken 90 years for the scars left by rebellion, repression and the Northern Ireland conflict to heal sufficiently for a reigning British monarch to visit Ireland, the first since George V in 1911.
Just a few years ago the prospect seemed remote. And there are still some prominent Irish figures, such as Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, who feel a royal visit is “premature” as long as Ireland remains partitioned.
However, since the British and Irish governments worked together to bring peace to Northern Ireland, the cold war between London and Dublin has ended, and the visit is being seen as a powerful symbol of the normalization of relations between ancient enemies.
The long-rumored event, expected to happen in summer, was confirmed by Irish foreign minister Micheal Martin at the end of December.
“I think the way has been cleared for a visit, that’s how I would look at it and I would expect something to happen in 2011,” he said. “It is right and timely.”
Queen Elizabeth has visited some 130 countries and has made several trips to Northern Ireland, and “it seems odd to me that the head of state of our nearest neighbor hasn’t been here yet,” observed Martin.
The invitation was extended last June by Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen and has the enthusiastic support of Ireland’s president, Mary McAleese, who has met Queen Elizabeth several times outside the country and enjoys a warm personal relationship with her.
British monarchs who crossed the Irish Sea in centuries past were usually engaged in military ventures.
In 1394, King Richard II arrived with an army intending, in Shakespeare’s words, to “supplant those rough rug-headed kerns / Which live like venom … .”
In 1821, however, George IV was greeted with considerable displays of loyalty when he arrived without an army. The port of Dun Laoghaire was named Kingstown in his honor, a deed which the contemporary Annals of Dublin predicted would “cause the original name to be entirely forgotten.”
But the name Kingstown was consigned to history and the original title restored when Ireland gained her independence in 1921.
Elizabeth is unlikely to have any town named after her, but "Mrs. Windsor," as militant Irish republicans call her dismissively, is guaranteed a warm official reception as the head of state of a neighboring country.
The only question concerning dignitaries is how to greet her without seeming either to tug the forelock or show disrespect to an invited guest.
Rugby star Ronan O’Gara sparked considerable comment last year, much of it unfavorable, when he greeted the queen with his hands in his pockets during a civic reception for the Irish rugby team in Northern Ireland.
Elizabeth “will get due deference but there wouldn’t be any deep curtseys,” predicted Deirdre McQuillan, fashion editor of The Irish Times.
Under royal protocol, there are strict rules for interacting with the British sovereign. At a reception for her in Northern Ireland in 2008 to mark the 100th anniversary of Queen’s University Belfast, which I attended as an alumnus, a royal equerry ushered us into semi-circles and advised us that we should not speak or shake hands unless the queen did so first.
A small woman long past retirement age, Queen Elizabeth worked the room as a seasoned professional, giving everyone a gloved handshake and politely asking the question, “And what do you do?”
As evidence of the effect of the royal presence even on staunch republicans, a noted Irish-American from New York standing next to me in line bowed and told her majesty he was a big fan.
When Prince Charles visited Dublin in 1995, he was treated courteously at official functions, though street protests took place over his role as colonel-in-chief of the British Parachute Regiment, which was responsible for killing 13 civilians in Derry on Bloody Sunday in 1972.
“I don’t recall people bowing and scraping,” said McQuillan, who attended a garden party for the prince during that visit where she remembers security being so tight there seemed to be “Kalashnikovs sticking out of every bush.”
McQuillan related with a laugh that when Prince Charles asked two young ladies at the Dublin reception “And what do you do?” they replied, “We play tennis and go to parties.”
Two months ago Prince Charles visited the Irish embassy in London and met several hundred British-based Irish community leaders and personalities as part of the groundwork for the royal state visit.
They cheered when broadcaster Terry Wogan told him, “I hope that when your mother, Her Majesty the Queen, travels over to Ireland, she will enjoy a warm welcome.”
Former rock star and political activist Bob Geldoff, emphasizing the maturity in relations between the two countries, told the gathering he had a message for people opposed to the queen’s visit: “They should get over it."