DUBLIN (Reuters) - Queen Elizabeth offered her sympathy and regret on Wednesday to all those who had suffered from centuries of conflict between Britain and Ireland in a powerful and personal address to the Irish nation.
“To all those who have suffered as a consequence of our troubled past I extend my sincere thoughts and deep sympathy,” the queen said in a televised speech at a banquet in Dublin Castle, once the nerve center of British rule in Ireland.
Dressed in a floor-length white gown with a diamond harp brooch glittering on her shoulder, the queen floored the assembled dignitaries when she began by addressing Ireland’s President Mary McAleese and the audience in the Irish language.
“Wow,” McAleese exclaimed, and the room burst into a spontaneous round of applause.
In her four-day state visit, the first by a British monarch since Ireland won its independence from London in 1921, the queen has shown a determination to address the bloody past and offer powerful gestures of reconciliation.
Her speech stopped short of an apology for British brutality but its reference to: “being able to bow to the past, but not be bound by it” struck the right note with Irish people, many of whom believe the country needs to leave its troubled relationship with Britain in the past.
The queen, whose cousin was killed by militant Irish nationalists in 1979, also alluded to her own loss in an address which was watched in living rooms across the island.
“These events have touched us all, many of us personally, and are a painful legacy.”
Just hours earlier, the queen undertook one of the most daring diplomatic engagements of her 59-year reign when she stepped out into Ireland’s Croke Park stadium, scene of a massacre by British troops.
In a gesture that summed up how far relations between Ireland and its former colonial master have come, the queen was brought into Croke Park through the Hogan Stand, named after a player killed on “Bloody Sunday” nearly a century ago.
She met players, chatted about Irish sport and was entertained by a marching band and traditional dancing, although the seats around the vast stadium were empty — a reflection of the tight security around the trip.
“It’ll put some demons to rest, bring a bit of closure,” said Phil Dolwer, 32, a chef working in a cafe around the corner from Croke Park. “The time is right.”
A 1998 deal ending Irish nationalists’ guerrilla war in Northern Ireland paved the way for the queen’s visit but the threat from dissident nationalists has meant security is tighter than on trips to other countries. There are no public walkabouts and streets around venues have been cleared of onlookers.
Before guests at Dublin Castle tucked into a dinner of cured salmon, rib of beef and strawberries and cream, around 500 metres (550 yards) away a crowd of up to 100 people threw rocks and fireworks at police officers.
“It doesn’t matter what she says, her army is still in this country,” said Sean Keogh, a 21-year-old history student.
SYMBOLIC AND Somber
Guests at the state dinner included political leaders from north and south of the Irish border as well as Brian O’Driscoll, Ireland’s rugby captain, Willie Walsh, the Irishman at the helm of British Airways, and Seamus Heaney, a Nobel Prize winner for literature.
Leaders of Sinn Fein, the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland and an opponent of continuing British involvement in the province, did not attend.
Even a few years ago, the presence of the queen, the commander in chief of British armed forces, in Croke Park would have been too much for many Irish people.
The stadium is an iconic place for nationalists. In 1920, during Ireland’s war for independence, British troops opened fire on a crowd there after 14 British intelligence officers were killed in the city the night before.
Fourteen civilians, one aged 10, were killed and “Bloody Sunday,” a rallying cry for the nationalist cause, was born.
Peace in Northern Ireland and British Prime Minister David Cameron’s apology last year for Northern Ireland’s “Bloody Sunday” in 1972 when British troops killed 13 protesters, cleared the way for the queen to visit.
Editing by Jodie Ginsberg and Mark Trevelyan