The formalities over, Ireland and Britain finally sat down to dinner

THE significance of President Michael D Higgins dining in state at Windsor castle last night is that it is the culmination of British recognition of Irish independence. It is also a full recognition of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

This exchange of high honours, within the ramparts of Windsor Castle, puts a gilded public patina on a reality that, at first painfully and then slowly, evolved over decades. State visits have been going on since the Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon, but the first state visit to an independent Ireland was not until 1961, when Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco came here.

The first outward state visit by a president of Ireland had only been nine years earlier, in 1950, when Seán T O’Kelly travelled to the Vatican, in what was also a Holy Year.

The second such visit abroad was in 1959, to the United States, where O’Kelly addressed both Houses of Congress. US President John F Kennedy’s arrival here, in 1963, was in part reciprocation of O’Kelly’s visit. It was also part of a wider European tour, by a head of state who was also an executive head of government.

Until Bunreacht na hÉireann established the office of President of Ireland, and Douglas Hyde was elected to it in 1938, the king of England was head of state in Ireland. The long delay, thereafter, in exchanging honours abroad at the highest level, reflected a continuing ambiguity over the role and status of the Irish president.

That ambiguity was deliberately created by Éamon de Valera — before the constitution was enacted — and pointedly never resolved until 1949. If the president was unambiguously head of state in Ireland, his position abroad was less than crystal clear. The doubt pivoted on events central to Queen Elizabeth’s life and her accession to the throne on which she has now sat for more than 60 years.

In 1936 — the year before the Irish people voted for a new constitution and to create the office of president, to replace that of governor general as the king’s representative — Queen Elizabeth’s uncle, King Edward VIII, abdicated. That changed Elizabeth’s life forever. It also required legislative approval from the member states of the Commonwealth. de Valera used the opportunity to pass the External Relations Act. This reduced the monarch’s role to a “symbol of their cooperation” as head of the Commonwealth of Nations. The king’s only function in relation to Ireland was to sign letters of credence for Irish ambassadors going abroad and international treaties, as advised by our government.

After 1936, the king was Queen Elizabeth’s father, King George VI — and he was, however ambiguously in Irish terms, the head of a commonwealth that Ireland had not left. But this raised questions over the actual status, internationally, of the president of Ireland.

Ambassadors, after all, once were, and in Britain still are, the personal representatives of the monarch who sends them. If the Irish State was represented abroad by credentials signed by a British king, how fully was an Irish president a head of state, in terms of international diplomatic protocol, whatever his constitutional standing at home?

de Valera never admitted publicly to the ambiguity he had purposefully created, and had refrained from resolving, while Taoiseach. He saw this link with the British crown, however tenuous, as a remaining conduit for unionist sentiment.

It was his successor, John A Costello, who acted, by announcing on a visit to Ottawa, in 1948, his intention to repeal the External Relations Acts and declare a Republic. This happened the following year. Ireland left the Commonwealth, and the ambiguity of the status of the Irish president, in relation to the British monarch, was ended. Independence was absolute and so was partition. It would be nearly another 50 years before the Good Friday Agreement decisively reconfigured relationships on this island, and between the sovereign governments in Britain and Ireland.

It was the full assertion of sovereignty, expressed in the Republic of Ireland Act, 1949, that led to the first tentative, and for a long time occasional, step onto the world stage by Irish presidents. The national journey of 64 years, from Seán T O’Kelly’s Holy Year visit to the Vatican in 1950 to President Higgins’ arrival yesterday at Windsor, is historic. Yesterday morning, at the commencement of the formalities of the state visit, the President was called upon at the Irish embassy in London by the Prince of Wales, who then escorted him to Windsor. It is just 33 years ago that an Irish government refused his antecedent, President Patrick Hillery, permission to accept an invitation to the Prince of Wales’s wedding to Lady Diana Spencer. The euphemistically described Troubles and the H Block hunger strikes made that a step too far. Last night, Martin McGuinness joined the long list of former terrorists who have dined with the Queen.

Much of the focus of this visit is rightly on the long rapprochement between Britain and Ireland. It is also marks a final separation from a formerly colonial relationship. The state reception of the President in Britain, building on decades of renegotiated political relationships and the 2011 visit of Queen Elizabeth to Ireland — when she laid a wreath and bowed her head in the Garden of Remembrance — is more a point of departure than of arrival. Departure, because history is never over.

SCOTLAND will vote on independence later this year. The United Kingdom may, if David Cameron is re-elected, vote in a referendum on whether to remain in the European Union. And all the while, the Northern Ireland executive is sliding into an institutional sclerosis, bereft of the sustained engagement with the sovereign governments that made this visit possible in the first place.

If the change in relationships on these islands over the past 20 years has been transformative, enormous challenges lie ahead. Five distinct entities — the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales — will recalibrate, maybe radically, but certainly incrementally, their mutual relations. For now, but maybe not forever, that change will happen in a shared European Union. A lot is at stake and only change is certain.

Looking at images of the state banquet in Windsor last night, it is worth remembering how much has already changed in a single lifetime. In the queen’s own adult life, her father inscribed ‘George R. I. — meaning Rex Imperator, King and Emperor — on the letter of credence for every Irish ambassador to represent us abroad.

Last night’s grandeur was the moment of ultimate intimacy in an old relationship. It marked the point of final departure, an end of empire and of the long, 20th century in British-Irish relations.

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