The English queen Elizabeth Windsor conducted a three-day visit to the north of Ireland this week amid a storm of controversy but without violent incident.

A giant military operation by the combined Crown forces was deployed in the predominately nationalist city of Armagh, with much of the city turned into a Baghdad-style “sterile zone” as ceremonial activities were held.

Heavily armed PSNI police wearing body armour, some carrying high-powered rifles, blocked all roads into the city. Scores of riot police patrolled the streets as the queen went about her engagements.

Those who attended the Crown ritual in Armagh cathedral were closely searched more than a mile from the cathedral and then bussed to the ceremony.

The British Army and PSNI mounted patrols on the streets, while there were controlled explosions of two “suspicious objects”, later described as hoax bombs.

The tour was seen by republican traditionalists as part of a campaign to stress the “normalisation” of partition and British rule in the north of Ireland.

Republican Sinn Féin and eirigi mounted protests in Armagh city centre but were kept a considerable distance from the queen, who is known to be planning a visit to Dublin next.

RSF spokesman Richard Walsh said that “until such time as England withdraws from Ireland and hostilities cease, we are opposed to the presence of British royals in our country. Whilst the British occupation of Ireland continues, Elizabeth Windsor can only be viewed as an enemy of the Irish people.”

In a statement, eirigi chairperson Brian Leeson has said: “By publicly announcing in advance a visit by Elizabeth Windsor to the Six Counties for the first time in nearly half a century, the British establishment is clearly signalling that the normalisation process is all but complete.

“In their view, the Six Counties is as British as Finchley and their monarch can visit at will. eirigi won’t allow such a propaganda exercise to go unopposed. While her forces of occupation remain in Ireland, Elizabeth Windsor is not welcome in Ireland.”

Sinn Féin was invited to the royal events but did not attend.

In the course of her royal tour, the queen met the Irish President Mary McAleese at an encounter the President described as “surreal”.

Before attending a ceremony at Queen’s University in Belfast, Mrs McAleese and Mrs Windsor had a 10-minute private meeting.

“We had a very good discussion, very positive, both of us talking about how miraculous these times are in Northern Ireland,” said President McAleese. She described relations between Britain and Ireland as the best “in centuries”.

Asked could she envisage a day when Sinn Féin might attend a British royal ceremony in Ireland, she said that “all sorts of miracles are possible”.

Citing the official policy of the Dublin government, Mrs McAleese added that a visit by the queen to the 26 Counties could only take place some time after policing and justice powers were transferred from London to the northern Executive, which is targeted for May.

This in turn prompted an outburst of criticism from unionists, who accused the President of showing disrespect to the queen by referring to the controversy.

The UUP leader Reg Empey said President McAleese should “butt out” of the issue. An editorial in yesterday’s unionist News Letter demanded that President McAleese apologise to the queen “for involving her in domestic politics”.

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© 2008 Irish Republican News