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Queen's visit to Ireland was a transformative moment

Thirty years ago this month, as a Springfield City Councilor, I strongly criticized the British government for its harsh treatment of Irish republican prisoners being held in Long Kesh prison outside of Belfast.

They were opposing a policy that classified them as criminals and were demanding to be treated as political prisoners. The British refused to make that concession, and ten young men, including their leader Bobby Sands, died from starvation. That's when my interest in the conflict in Northern Ireland began.

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A decade later, as United States Representative, I joined several colleagues in refusing to attend a speech by Queen Elizabeth II before a joint session of Congress. My decision was based upon the death of the hunger strikers, and the continued presence of the British military in Northern Ireland.

But recently, when asked by an Irish journalist what I thought of the queen's recent state visit to Ireland, the first by a British monarch in more than 100 years, I described it as a great success. I praised her dignity, gestures of respect and sensitivity to the past. I said the trip was another significant milestone on the path towards peace and reconciliation. It represents a new era in the relationship between the people of Ireland and Britain. And it was a powerful reminder of how quickly times can change.

For supporters of the peace process, and most Irish Americans, the successful visit of Queen Elizabeth would have been unimaginable just a few short years ago. But with the normalization of the relationship between Britain and Ireland, and with the power-sharing institutions in Northern Ireland stable, Irish president Mary McAleese felt the time was right to extend an invitation.

It was a shrewd decision. The queen quickly accepted and planning for the visit began. History would be made on both sides of the Irish Sea. After all, the last reigning British monarch to visit Irish soil was King George V in 1911.

Throughout Queen Elizabeth's four day trip, the imagery was powerful and poignant. She visited Croke Park in Dublin with her husband Prince Philip where British troops killed fourteen civilians during the War of Independence in 1920.

Along with President McAleese, she placed a wreath in the Garden of Remembrance, a national memorial dedicated to those who died fighting against the British Empire. She traveled to Cork, rebel country, birthplace of Irish revolutionary Michael Collins, where both the Irish Tricolor and the Union Jack flew over City Hall. In Cashel, she shook hands with Sinn Féin Mayor Michael Browne.

The queen's words were equally meaningful and profound. Acknowledging the complex 800 year shared history between the two countries she said "with the benefit of historical hindsight, we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently - or not at all."

She offered her "sincere thoughts and deep sympathy" to all those who have suffered during the centuries of conflict earning the praise of Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams. Reflecting further on the relationship between the two islands she said we "can bow to the past, but not be bound by it." She even spoke in flawless Irish, a language the British once tried to restrict.

At every step, the 85-year old monarch conducted herself with grace, warmth and sincerity, winning over the hearts and minds of the vast majority of the Irish people. The transformative nature of the visit was obvious to everyone. It brought down barriers, and perhaps helped put the troubles behind us for good.

For Ireland, a small country facing a debt crisis that threatens its economy, the trip was a huge psychological boost. Coming one week before President Barack Obama was scheduled to arrive in Dublin, it sent a message to the world that Ireland is a country that punches above its weight.

It could not have come at a better time. For President McAleese and Taoiseach Enda Kenny, the two prime architects of the queen's visit, it was a personal and political triumph. Their leadership is helping to redefine the relationship with Britain, where Ireland is a co-equal partner.

The world has witnessed many unprecedented and extraordinary events take place on the island of Ireland the last three decades. I have seen many of them firsthand, thanks to the continued support of the people of the Second Congressional District.

The visit of Queen Elizabeth was another turning point where ancient differences are left behind for a brighter and more prosperous future. Many thought these moments would never happen in our lifetime. We can be grateful that they have.

Congressman Richard Neal is the former chairman of the Friends of Ireland group in Congress and represents the Second Congressional District in Massachusetts.