Paul Pillar

Putting the Past to Rest in Dublin

We in the United States—being party to, or having an interest in, some seemingly intractable conflicts—ought to take note of the visit to Ireland on Wednesday of Queen Elizabeth II and to extract lessons from the reconciliation that the visit represented. As far as British royal activities are concerned, the visit certainly was more significant than that wedding that got so much attention last month. This was the first visit by a British monarch to the Republic of Ireland since its independence 90 years ago. Anglo-Irish enmity and bloodshed actually dates back centuries, from the time of the Normans through conquests by Henry VIII and Oliver Cromwell, the armed insurrection that led to Irish independence, and in more recent years a terrorist campaign by the Provisional Irish Republican Army.

The statesmanship that made the visit possible had several critical ingredients. One was an ability and willingness not to let reason be swept aside by the emotion stemming from the bloodshed. The queen could aptly symbolize this determination to get past any bitter feelings, having been touched by the bloodshed herself. Her cousin Lord Mountbatten was killed by a PIRA bomb in 1979.

Another ingredient was a recognition that neither side had a monopoly on either suffering or righteousness. Many people died on each side. Each side had understandable and legitimate interests to protect. And each side eventually came to acknowledge all that.

Reconciliation required a coming to terms with a troubled history without letting the history enchain the present. The queen spoke in a well-received speech at Dublin Castle of the importance of “being able to bow to the past, but not be bound by it.”

An awareness of common interests and a willingness to pursue them together notwithstanding continued conflicts of interest was another important ingredient. Over the last couple of decades the British and Irish governments worked in close cooperation on their shared problem of permanently quelling violence in Ulster. Eventually the PIRA leadership worked with both governments in common pursuit of a stable and prosperous new order in the province.

Finally, the participants did not allow the resistance of extremists to wreck reconciliation. That resistance continues to this day. Security for the queen's visit was very tight, and Irish police had to quash an unruly demonstration by the 32 County Sovereignty Movement, which is still not reconciled to British sovereignty over Northern Ireland.

It is not difficult to think of other conflicts, some of which the United States has some power to influence, that could use more of this kind of statesmanship.