The scriptwriters of The Crown don't know this true story about 'herself’.
On Friday 20 May 2011 Queen Elizabeth was being chauffeured along the M8 to Cork. She was in the final phase of her four-day visit to Ireland. At the Rock of Cashel site, the terminally ill Sinn Féin mayor of Tipperary, Councillor Michael Browne, had abandoned the ‘give her a wide berth’ party policy when he extended his hand to the Royal visitors.
Ahead was her last official engagement, an afternoon visit to the English Market in Cork. But before that a special treat lay in wait. She was going to detour to Fethard. At Coolmore Stud she could indulge in one of the passions she shared with her late mother – the art of breeding thoroughbreds for horse racing.
Along that road south a suggestion was raised with Ma’am. What was her view about adding a brief but unscheduled walkabout on Grand Parade, among the crowds gathered outside the English Market?
Lengthy consideration was not required.
From the much-commented about bow in the Garden of Remembrance three days before, to the ‘A Uachtaran agus a chairde’ speech alongside President Mary McAleese at Dublin Castle and the time spent in Croke Park, the home of the GAA, the visit had exceeded its most optimistic ambitions.
But one word, one concept was not part of the English language or any political thesaurus back then - Brexit
The event where decades of studied calm were almost overturned came the night before at the Dublin Convention Centre. The Chieftains, Westlife and Eimear Quinn had been among the performers in a Concert compèred by the maestro, Gay Byrne. As the Queen and her husband climbed the steps to thank the contributors, the packed hall broke into applause and cheering.
It was the kind of outburst that her late mother associated with the winners’ enclosure at Cheltenham. But many times more powerful.
A few minutes later, outside the centre, the McAleeses were preparing to say their final goodbyes to their visitors, knowing they would not see them the following morning when they departed from Farmleigh.
The Queen didn’t speak much. She was busy, still processing the wave of warmth that had caught her unawares on the stage.
So it was no surprise then that the proposed Cork walkabout was quickly given the Royal nod. What followed among the Cork well-wishers and the banter with fishmonger Pat O’Connell brought the perfect end to four days of healing history.
The 85-year-old monarch departed Dublin Airport that evening with a sense that a centuries-old, complex, often fraught relationship with the next-door neighbours was in a better place. In the winter of her life those tensions and hurt saddened her.
She had travelled, deliberately, with good intentions. It was a case of mission accomplished. And exceeded. But one word, one concept was not part of the English language or any political thesaurus back then - Brexit.
A British version of Dancing On Ice
Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, has never heard of the late Brian Lenihan senior. But in current British politics, he is the one frequently given the role by the Conservative government that Mr Lenihan was often handed during some of the rocky periods when Fianna Fáil was in power.
As was the case with his son and namesake, it was very difficult to dislike Brian Lenihan. Father and son carried that likeability trait lightly as they battled to the end against relentless versions of cancer.
During the Haughey era Brian Lenihan senior was the person chosen to go before reporters and the general public to explain, defend and make the occasional U-turn on the inexplicable.
His spirited performances, nearly always smiling, even when he slipped and banged his nose on the ice rink never lessened his popularity with the spectators.
The only time the ice punctured, when he fell into the freezing water, was his ‘mature reflection moment’ during the 1990 Presidential Election campaign. But he, not his party, was the one damaged by that episode.
He was genuinely mourned after he died, prematurely, five years later aged 64.
Brandon Lewis is the person frequently chosen by the Conservative government to make a convincing case that cod liver oil really is cognac.
You could imagine the conversations among Tory spin doctors when some crock of manure emerges from left field. Who do we put up to bat for us?
Matt Hancock? No. Credibility query.
Dominic Raab? No. Might come across as shifty.
Priti Patel? Oh definitely not; she could lose her temper.
Michael Gove? Slippery yes, but clever. Maybe.
How about Brandon, Brandon Lewis? Yes. Yes. Perfect. Brandon can say nothing or very little, over and over again. He stays calm. He smiles his way through a haranguing. Water off a duck’s back. Give Brandon a call and line him up for the Andrew Marr Show.
Promotion or poisoned chalice?
Brandon Lewis was appointed Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in early 2020. While being sold as promotion, it was one more example of his suitability as the acceptor of a poisoned chalice.
He was replacing the most widely respected occupant of the office in many years, Julian Smith whose lack of a relationship with Boris Johnson and his then chief advisor,
Dominic Cummings, did for him. The fact that Citizen Smith was able and popular sealed his fate.
As well as attempting to follow a spectacularly successful act, Brandon Lewis was dispatched to "the province" as the UK’s planned exit from the EU gathered pace. He was appointed on 13 February. Before the month ended, the island of Ireland had its first confirmed case of the Coronavirus. So on several fronts, Brandon was given a job which exposed him to learning about slurry.
His willingness to ‘take one for the team, regardless’ was illustrated, vividly in the House of Commons on 8 September. Poked by a fellow Conservative MP, Bob Neill, he stated on the parliamentary record that the UK was prepared to break international law in a limited way by over-riding elements of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.
Often confident to speak without notes or to not refer to them when talking, on this occasion in the House of Commons Brandon tellingly read from the page below him.
His contribution attracted international attention. For its notoriety.
The staff working with Brandon Lewis at the Northern Ireland office includes three Irishmen, selected from the British civil service
He could quite easily be dismissed as a cardboard cut-out, direct from Conservative Central Casting. But this would be trite and a failure to take note of deeper, significant truths.
Brandon Lewis was born in London in 1971, two years before the UK and Ireland joined the EU. He is a qualified solicitor. He headed to far off Norfolk and the Great Yarmouth Westminster constituency to win seat from Labour, at the second attempt, in 2010. He campaigned to remain in the European Union in advance of the Brexit Referendum.
He says that in his role as then Security Minister, he was the final British government representative to participate in an EU Council of Ministers meeting. (Julian King, the British Ambassador in Dublin during the Queen Elizabeth visit, was the final British government representative to serve as a member of the European Commission before team UK upped sticks.)
The staff working with Brandon Lewis at the Northern Ireland office includes three Irishmen, selected from the British civil service – one from Skibbereen, one from Killarney and a third from north Dublin. They are a vivid example of the interconnectness of the islands that has developed on so many levels in recent decades.
Early next week Brandon Lewis will seek and struggle to exercise the wisdom of King Solomon on a highly sensitive issue in British-Irish relations.
A promise by the British government to hold a public inquiry into the 1989 murder of Belfast solicitor, Pat Finucane, can be traced back to political discussions at Weston Park on the watch of Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern in 2001.
In the time since, prime ministers Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Teresa May and now Boris Johnson have failed to deliver on the commitment. A yellow pack investigation, no fault of its author Sir Desmond de Silva, took place in 2011. It failed to satisfy the Finucane family and their supporters and they have continued to pursue their grievance through the courts.
Among the factors Brandon Lewis will consider is the financial cost of a public inquiry. More significant issues are the risks involved in burrowing deep into the policy-making and decision-making procedures of the British government and its security forces during The Troubles.
He will also weigh up how some Conservatives and Unionists might react. He will have a significant input to the decision that will be made public next week.
But the future of another matter that will heavily influence his future as Northern Ireland Secretary is completely beyond his control. It is Brexit.
Enter Boris Johnson.
Boris is under the spotlight
Over the next ten days the British prime minister will make the most significant decision affecting British-Irish relations since Tony Blair and John Major before him set in place the process that created the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Boris must make his judgement call almost a decade after his sovereign made her historic friendship journey across the Irish Sea.
If the British government reaches an accommodation with the European Union - a far from perfect compromise, an accord with significant parts to be worked out over a period time - relations between our islands will have a chance to draw breath and to recast.
If there is no deal, economic challenge on an unknown and unpredictable scale will follow. Some of the healing of recent decades will be strained and seeds of negativity will be sown.
Boris Johnson has recently cut his ties with the likes of Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain. He has ditched two key figures who did a magnificent job in convincing a majority of Brexit Referendum voters they should set sail for the sunny uplands, next door to Narnia.
But having borrowed heavily during the Covid-19 nightmare and made a U-turn on lockdown policy, has Boris the gumption to now alienate the cohort of Brexiteers who helped make him prime minister?
Has he the conviction to back the kind of compromise deal advocated by the Labour leader, Keir Starmer?
A Biden-admired island of Ireland could be valued in a new way by the United States, the EU and the UK.
Covid-19 is an unpredictable phenomenon with a reach that no science fiction writers could foresee. To date the virus has killed more than 250,000 people in the United States, the most powerful country in the world. In lost 418,000 citizens in World War Two. 3,000 people died in the 9/11 attacks.
Credibility is an issue for Donald Trump. But one argument he could make convincingly is that he would have romped home to a second White House term but for the impact of the virus.
Just as Brexit wasn’t a consideration when Queen Elizabeth visited Ireland, the coronavirus wasn’t a factor when Boris Johnson was manoeuvring his way to power.
Might he dare to dream afresh about a different version of the sunny uplands?
Where the EU might genuinely acknowledge it misses British involvement in the European project and where a respectful relationship is the best possible arrangement after formal divorce.
Where Ireland and the UK might recast their relationship, just as they did after they joined the EEC in 1973 and surprised themselves by the scale of their shared traits when participating in new political geometry.
Where Northern Ireland, traditionally the source of angst, could exploit its unique status as the intersection of the UK and the EU. And where its politicians might be so busy dealing with growth, their default position to squabble might recede.
Where a Biden-admired island of Ireland could be valued in a new way by the United States, the EU and the UK.
The next five years or longer could be a golden phase on the island of Ireland. The period could also be the opposite. Recession could kick in, influenced by even deeper decline in the neighbouring jurisdiction.
Boris Johnson is many things. But nowhere in his colourful, often controversial past has evidence been produced to suggest he is wedded to ideology. A feature of his career is his capacity to spot an opportunity and to go for it. Opportunistic, ambitious yes but not even his enemies accused him of being stupid.
Last week in Northern Ireland, the DUP got around to accepting scientific and medical advice and changed its policy on Covid-19 linked restrictions. Arlene Foster signalled it was time for the party to stop digging a deep hole and instead put its energy into working on an escape tunnel.
I expect Boris Johnson’s survival instincts to kick in over the next ten days.
A deal with Brussels is the way out of a deepening hole.
And Joe Biden is watching.