It was a state visit that changed the state of relations between Ireland and Britain for good. Here are some things we noticed along the way.
Nobody says sorry like one does
Though the Queen’s landmark state banquet speech was written for her by the foreign and commonwealth office and Downing Street, referencing her family participation in the 1916 uprising commemorations in Dublin could only have been sanctioned by herself.
The speech, in contrast to the limp platitudes of the one given in return by President Michael D Higgins, was a transformative work of substance that also remembered those who “died for Irish freedom” and acknowledged the decades, indeed, centuries, of discrimination felt by Irish immigrants in Britain.
‘The Soldier’s Song’ was played well by the British army
In contrast to the banquet speech, the President’s address to both houses of parliament in Westminster, during which he described how his father had fought the British army to help achieve independence, was impressive and moving.
A few hours earlier, the modern expression of that army pulled out all the stops to impress him as the deafening clatter of hooves on gravel enveloped the quadrangle at Windsor Castle where 850 soldiers and cavalrymen riding 275 Irish-bred horses paraded before him. It was like Disney World with weapons.
As the 21-gun-salute exploded across the battlements, while church bells rang out and ‘Amhrán na bhFiann’ played proudly across the royal residence, it created an extraordinary sense of occasion.
The British were not all ears
The Guardian was forced to print an embarrassing correction: “The parliamentary sketch on the first state visit of an Irish president to London said that Michael D Higgins had “name-checked the Magna Carta, Daniel O’Donnell and Constance Markiewicz. It was not Daniel O’Donnell, the Irish singer and television presenter, he name-checked, but Daniel O’Connell, the 19th-century Irish nationalist leader.”
Michael D is not as posh as he thinks he is
As the tour progressed, it was remarked that so too did Michael D’s accent go on a journey of its own, climbing at least two social classes up from where it had been in Dublin, with the diction becoming ever more affected-sounding.
Sinn Féin are awful sensitive these days — sometimes
Right-wing British tabloids were frothing at the mouth at the thought of her majesty sitting down to dinner with former IRA commander Martin McGuinness, with headlines like: “What Next? Will She Be Forced To Take Tea With Al Qaida?”
Ex-Tory minister Norman Tebbit, whose wife was disabled after the Brighton bomb, agreed: “There’s always the possibility that a member of the Real IRA will be so outraged by Mr McGuinness bowing to the Queen that they might shoot him in the back for it. We can but hope.”
Sinn Féin reacted furiously, insisting Tebbit was advocating Martin’s assassination.
Tebbit later said he regretted the trouble his comments had caused. Asked if he would withdraw his remarks, Tebbit said: “I don’t think I would advise anyone or entreaty anybody to shoot Mr McGuinness — I would welcome it if he was brought to trial, of course.”
Leaving aside the fact dissident republicans are unlikely to take their lead from the arch-Thatcherite and former chairman of the Conservative and Unionist Party, this would be the same Sinn Féin whose Dáil justice spokesman, Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, said on the release of the Smithwick tribunal report into the murder of two RUC men that it was the “duty” of the IRA team responsible to kill them.
Nobody mentioned the blast from the past
At the sumptuous Guildhall dinner where the great and the good of moneyed London honoured President Higgins, the lord mayor was positively gushing in her delight that McGuinness was present.
This despite the fact his old chums in the IRA (famously, he says he left the provos in 1974, though he has never given a particularly satisfactory explanation as to why) did their best to try and blow-up the square mile of the financial district in the early 1990s.
How times change.
Did it make a just dessert?
Was it grim irony or jaw-dropping bad taste that put a “bombe” on the menu as afters for McGuinness and the other 159 dinners at the state banquet?
Prince Philip kept the royal racism in check
Famed for his outbursts about Chinese people with “slitty eyes”, the Duke of Edinburgh’s prejudice is not just confined to other races. After being introduced to a driving instructor in Glasgow he asked: “How do you keep the locals sober long enough to take the test?”
There were no such lapses on this occasion, which is probably why McGuinness was seated 15 places away from him at the banquet.
Sabina stepped out of her husband’s shadow
The first lady was the revelation of the tour as she put the royals at ease and displayed the common touch while also dressing impressively for each event. A higher profile for her back home would do Michael D’s presidency no harm at all.
The British are better buggers than us
The microphone hidden in the flower arrangement at the state banquet so that the Queen and President could talk au naturale intrigued the Irish guests who could only admire the expertise of the operation when set against the Garda/GSOC fiasco back home.
President Higgins felt the hand of history on his alarm clock
The head of state, who turns 73 next week, carried off a hectic schedule with energy and aplomb.
The result recalibrated the relationship between Britain and Ireland and went a long way to easing the mistrust felt for so long between the two countries.
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