Maureen Dowd / The wearing of the green: The queen engages in powerful symbolism in her visit to N. Ireland
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GALWAY, Ireland -- Maybe Sarah Palin was right.
In the HBO movie "Game Change," about the 2008 campaign, John McCain's strategist Steve Schmidt was appalled when he realized that their vice presidential pick thought Queen Elizabeth, rather than the prime minister, was actually running the show in Britain. But with David Cameron growing smaller and the queen growing larger, Ms. Palin seems prescient.
In leading a reconciliation with Ireland, reaching a white-gloved hand across the bloodstained tide, the queen has restored a luster dimmed by her 1992 "annus horribilis" and her insensitivity after the death of Princess Diana.
Her elevation to Ireland's Prodigal Mother began last year when Liz, as The Irish Daily Star calls her, arrived for a four-day visit to the Irish Republic -- the first by a British monarch in a century -- wearing an emerald green suit, surrounded by ladies-in-waiting not reading "Fifty Shades of Grey" but wearing 40 shades of green.
The Irish immediately understood that the queen meant business. In this island of myth, superstition and symbol, where the past is always present, she urged both sides "to bow to the past but not be bound by it."
The mood was tentative at first, but the ice broke when the monarch bowed her head at the Garden of Remembrance, the sacred ground for Irish patriots who died battling for independence, spoke some Irish, and visited Croke Park, the site of the 1920 Bloody Sunday, when 14 Irish civilians died after British forces opened fire on them.
By the end of that visit, some Irish were waving Union Jacks and fondly calling her Betty on Twitter.
The skunk at the emotional garden party was Sinn Fein, which misread the national mood and maintained a sullen distance from the queen. (Sinn Fein lived up to its name, which translates as "We ourselves.") Gerry Adams, the party president, and Martin McGuinness, the deputy first minister for Northern Ireland -- both former capos in the IRA -- soon realized they had missed an opportunity to milk an opportunity.
After all, as one top Irish journalist told me, "These are guys who would take the eye out of your head and say you'd look better without it."
They were also eager to exploit the economic recession, which has helped their poll numbers spike in the Irish Republic, and realized they had misplayed the queen's visit and needed to assuage their new, more moderate supporters.
So when the queen, the commander in chief of the British armed forces, visited Northern Ireland last week as part of her Jubilee celebration, Mr. McGuinness, the former IRA commander, was ready to embrace this woman he had spent his life fighting, first violently and then politically. It certainly took courage for Mr. McGuinness and the queen to confront the "rough beasts" who would cry treason in both their camps. But it also suited them to disguise pragmatism as principle.
So their historic -- and hopeful -- handshake on Wednesday at a charity art exhibition at a Belfast theater had to be elaborately choreographed and minutely negotiated.
The queen had to move past the 1979 murder by the IRA of her cousin Lord Mountbatten and his 14-year-old grandson, who died when the boat they were on off County Sligo was blown up. Mr. McGuinness, who was a leader of the IRA in nearby Derry for some of the '70s, had to move past the 1972 Bloody Sunday horror there, when British forces gunned down 14 innocent civilians.
A mesmerized country watched with a sense, as one TV commentator put it, of "My goodness, me." There was a cascade of the words unthinkable, unimaginable and -- for dead-enders -- unspeakable. The queen, gracious once more in a green suit and hat the color of bright spring shoots, offered a gloved hand and warm smile to the former guerrilla. Mr. McGuinness spoke Irish to the queen, a Gaelic blessing translated as "Goodbye and Godspeed."
And "Martin and Lizzie's love-in," as the Dublin satirical magazine The Phoenix called it, was hailed by Mr. Adams as "a very, very good thing indeed."
"Will it be significant beyond the novelty or beyond the symbolism?" he asked. "That's up to us."
First Published July 2, 2012 12:00 am