Michael D Higgin’s Irish State Visit To UK Marks A New High For Anglo Irish Relations by Annette J Dunlea
Michael Daniel Higgins is the ninth and current President of Ireland, having taken office on 11 November 2011, following victory in the 2011 Irish presidential election. Higgins is a politician, poet, sociologist, author and broadcaster. He is known as one of the country’s leading public intellectuals. Irish President Michael D Higgins has met the Queen on the first ever state visit to Britain by the country’s head of state. Mr Higgins and his wife Sabina met the monarch at Windsor Castle, three years after the Queen’s historic visit to Dublin. It heralded the start of a new chapter in the relationship between the two countries. The significance has been further deepened with the presence of Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister and former IRA commander Martin Mc Guinness, who attended a banquet hosted by the Queen, a move unthinkable only a decade ago. The streets of Windsor were decked out in Union flags and Irish Tricolours. After travelling to the Berkshire town from London with the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall, the president and his wife were met by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. He visited Westminster Abbey and Stratford-Upon-Avon, an addressed the joint Houses of Commons and Lords. He attended a state banquet hosted by the Queen, a lord mayor’s banquet and courtesy calls from all the political leaders. Despite the close cultural, linguistic and economic ties between the UK and the Republic of Ireland, no Irish president has ever visited Britain before. The significance of the President’s visit is further deepened by the invitation for him to stay at the Queen’s home, Windsor Castle, where a state banquet was held in his honour. Wounds between us festered for far too long. The president’s visit was another symbolic contribution to the healing process. He deserved the warm welcome he received just as the Queen enjoyed in Ireland. Mr Higgins said that progress in the Northern Ireland peace process should not be about forgetting the past. Mr Higgins spent four days on the extended visit as a guest of the queen, a sign he says is symbolic of the importance both countries place on the normalisation of relations more than 90 years after independence.
Relations between the two countries have never been closer. We have a common travel area, a peaceful Northern Ireland and enhanced trade and cultural ties. This is the long overdue respect that hasn’t been there over the decades. The Queen has been intimately involved in picking the schedule, just as she was for her own visit to Ireland two years ago. It was another key moment in the healing process. Michael D Higgins’s visit to London is another symbolic contribution to the two nations’ closer ties. It marked the final official act of reconciliation between the two countries in the aftermath of the peace process. The Queen’s visit to Ireland in 2011, the first by a reigning monarch for 100 years. It was a momentous occasion, intended to cement a new relationship of normality following the political settlement in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein gave Mr Mc Guinness permission to attend. The intention was to send a message to everybody about how things have changed.
He went to Windsor to meet the Queen and Prince Philip. A military band played the Irish national anthem as Higgins and his wife Sabina were welcomed at the castle, while the streets of Windsor had Irish tricolours and Union flags stretching along its streets. After the guests were honoured with two separate gun salutes, the Queen and president entered the castle in the Australian State Coach, before President Higgins and Prince Philip inspected troops of the Queen’s Company, Grenadier Guards. Major Andrew Seddon, captain of the Queen’s Company Grenadier Guards, invited Mr Higgins to inspect the guard of honour, speaking to him in Irish. The Irish Guards was represented by their regimental band as the troops are currently on peacekeeping duties in Cyprus. Mr Higgins presented a new ceremonial red coat to its regimental mascot, an Irish wolfhound called Domhnall of Shantamon. Colour Sergeant Frankie Whelan was at the castle. He said today was a proud day for soldiers from the Republic, adding: ‘I’m very proud today for all Irish soldiers, whether they be in the Irish Guards or Irish Regiment. President Higgins focused on the contribution Irish emigrants have made to UK life. The theme of the state visit was on the two countries’ shared histories.
During the decades of the Northern Irish Troubles, the two governments of the two countries had an uneasy relationship as they worked together to bring peace. However, the tide started to turn in the late 1990s, thanks to the good working relationship between Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern. In May 2011, the Queen visited the Republic of Ireland for the first time as the guest of then-president Mary Mc Aleese. During her visit, the monarch shook hands with former IRA commander Martin Mc Guinness, gave a speech which included a few words of Irish and shared jokes with members of the local community. Michael D. Higgins’ current trip to Britain is seen as a reciprocal visit, sealing the warm relations between the two countries. Addressing her guests the Queen said it is important the Britain supports Ireland’s First and Deputy First Ministers, Peter Robinson and Martin Mc Guinness, to establish a shared society based on a mutual respect and equal opportunity. She said the goal of the modern British Irish relationship is that both countries should ‘live together as respectful friends’, ‘co-operating for the mutual benefit, at ease with each other’.’We are walking together to a better, more stable future,’ the Queen said. ‘We remember our past but no longer will we let our past ensnare our future. That is the greatest gift we can give succeeding generations.’
Speaking to MPs President Higgins said: ‘I am conscious that I am in the company here of many distinguished parliamentarians who have made their own individual contributions to the journey we have travelled together,’ he said.’I acknowledge them and I salute them, as I acknowledge and salute all those who have selflessly worked to build concord between our peoples. I celebrate our warm friendship and I look forward with confidence to a future in which that friendship can grow even more resolute and more productive.’President Higgins paid tribute to the UK Parliament for being synonymous with the principle of democracy and used his address to urge politicians to look at the foundation of parliamentary democracy in Britain for inspiration, referencing the Magna Carta and its significance for modern nations. He said politics, society and the economy cause division between the citizen and the state when they are treated as separate entities and he urged politicians to remember that citizenship should be rooted in the principles of active participation, justice and freedom.’Such a vision of citizenship is shared by our two peoples,’ the President said. It was fitting that President Michael D Higgins took the opportunity to acknowledge the contribution of Irish parliamentarians to the cause of Irish freedom, and also to the contribution generations of Irish emigrants have made to the development of Britain
He acknowledged that the fight for Irish independence, which his father took part in, which cast a long shadow over Anglo-Irish relations but also noted how ties across the Irish Sea are now stronger than ever.’We acknowledge that past but, even more, we wholeheartedly welcome the considerable achievement of today’s reality, the mutual respect, friendship and cooperation which exists between our two countries,’ he said.’That benign reality was brought into sharp relief by the historic visit of Queen Elizabeth to Ireland three years ago. Her Majesty’s visit eloquently expressed how far we have come in understanding and respecting our differences, and it demonstrated that we could now look at each other through trusting eyes of mutual respect and shared commitments.’The ties between us are now strong and resolute. Formidable flows of trade and investment across the Irish Sea confer mutual benefit on our two countries. In tourism, sport and culture, our people to people connections have never been as close or abundant. President Higgins also addressed both houses of Britain’s Parliament, another first for an Irish head of state. He expressed his pride that the large Irish community was represented in every walk of life in the country.“That community is the living heart in the evolving British- Irish relationship. I greatly cherish how the Irish in Britain have preserved and nurtured their culture and heritage while, at the same time, making a distinctive and valued contribution to the development of modern Britain. The speaker of the Commons John Bercow took a similar theme, saying that real substance was wrapped in the symbolism of the President’s visit. He added that, contrary to Yeats’s view, “the centre has held” in our time, and this had made possible the new relations between the two countries.
This was unthinkable 20 years ago. On the issue of the 1916 centenary, the Taoiseach said it should be possible for members of the British royal family to visit Dublin during the commemorations. He said it would be another event in the continuing closeness between both countries. Meanwhile, Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore has said relations between Ireland and Britain are better than they have ever been. Speaking on Sky News, Mr Gilmore said there was an enormous volume of trade between the two countries, amounting to about €1 billion every week. He said Britain is Ireland’s largest market and Ireland is Britain’s fifth largest market.
Michael D Higgins: “The relationship between our two islands has achieved a closeness and warmth that once seemed unachievable. He acknowledged that there were “a lot of very difficult memories” and that it would be wrong to “wipe the slate clean. He said this country has a deep and enduring friendship with Britain. He said both countries could take “immense pride” in their work towards peace in Northern Ireland. He noted there was “still a road to be travelled” to reach lasting peace. He stated that “Ireland and Britain live in both the shadow and in the shelter of one another, and so it has been since the dawn of history.”We celebrate what has been achieved but we must also constantly renew our commitment to a process that requires vigilance and care.”The Queen Herself changed Irish history entirely three years ago”, when the Queen laid a wreath at a memorial to those who died fighting for Ireland’s independence. The Queen said it best: ‘We will remember our past, but we shall no longer allow our past to ensnare our future’.Then came the bombshell, but a good one. The Queen said that as the two nations “enter a period of historical resonance, it is right to look back in remembrance”.She added: “People from Ireland were involved in all the major campaigns and battles of the war. We will remember and honour their contribution and sacrifice, just as we remember our own.”My family and my government will stand alongside you, Mr President, and your ministers, throughout the anniversaries of the war and of the events that led to the creation of the Irish Free State.”The Queen acknowledged the contribution made by Irish people in Britain.”Britain has been hugely enriched by the migration of Irishmen and women to these shores. The contribution of Irish people to Britain has reached into every walk of British life,” she said. Adding: “And yet, over the years, many Irish migrants to Britain encountered discrimination and a lack of appreciation.”Happily, those days are now behind us, and it is widely recognised that Britain is a better place because of the Irish people who live here.”The Queen also made reference to the peace process in Northern Ireland.”Our two governments will continue to work together in Northern Ireland to support the First and Deputy First Minister and the Executive to advance the peace process and to establish a shared society based on mutual respect and equality of opportunity,” she said. President Higgins said her “apt and considered words when you addressed some of the painful moments of our mutual history” were valued. He said people were “moved” by the Queen’s gestures of respect at sites of national historical significance in Ireland. “These memorable moments and these moving words merit our appreciation and, even more, our reciprocity.”While the past must be respectfully recognised, it must not imperil the potential of the present or the possibilities of the future – ar feidireachtai gan teorainn – our endless possibilities working together,” he said.”Britain and Ireland shall no longer allow our past to ensnare our future. The goal of modern British-Irish relations can be simply stated, said Queen Elizabeth. She added: “It is that we, who inhabit these islands, should live together as neighbours and friends. Respectful of each other’s nationhood, sovereignty and traditions.”Cooperating to our mutual benefit. At ease in each other’s company.”