UK presidential visit - Looking to the future, not the past

It is, in a way, an absurdity that two neighbouring island nations should have to engage in tortuous planning and negotiations and no small amount of soul searching simply to organise a state visit.

That is the sad reality of the troubled and shared history of Ireland and Britain. Almost 800 years of enmity, repression and rebellion, a war of independence followed by economic isolation, and 30 years of conflict in the North have taken their toll.

Yet all that weight of history makes the announcement of a state visit of President Higgins to the UK all the more welcome.

He and his wife Sabina have accepted an invitation from Queen Elizabeth to stay at Windsor Castle for a three-day visit next April. He will be the first Irish head of state to make a state visit to the UK.

At grassroots level, there has always been a warmth and understanding between the Irish and English and our Celtic cousins, the Welsh and Scots. We eat their chips; they drink our Guinness. Irish fans cheered for British boxer Nicola Adams just as British fans cheered for gold medallist Katie Taylor when the two fought separate bouts at the London Olympics last year.

But, since the foundation of the State, that friendship and warmth has rarely been reflected at political level on any side of the Irish Sea.

The first real thawing of relations at head of state level began when Mary Robinson became the first serving Irish president to visit the UK when she met the Queen at Buckingham Palace in May, 1993.

Her recent reflections on that visit are revealing and show the extent to which we have travelled on the road to reconciliation and friendship since then.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, the former president said that two years before that encounter she had been asked to attend events in Britain and, as is specified in the Constitution, had to ask the permission of the Government to do so. “There was quite a lot of controversy because no previous president had ever done anything in Britain,” she said.

She also recalled the controversy about what she would be called during her visit and how she would be addressed at official level.

“The British did not want to use ‘President of Ireland’ so there were various versions [such as] ‘President Mary Robinson of Ireland’.”

When Elizabeth made her historic state visit to Ireland in 2011, there was no such ambiguity. She repeatedly referred to the Republic as “Ireland” and the North as “Northern Ireland”. At a state dinner in Dublin Castle, Elizabeth made her opening remarks as Gaeilge, drawing gasps from some of the attendance and a “wow” from President McAleese.

Her cúpla focal should have caused little surprise, though, as her forebear, Elizabeth I, as queen of Ireland, spoke in Irish during negotiations with Shane O’Neill, the great Gaelic chieftain of Tyrone, during his visit to her court in Whitehall in 1562.

Mary Robinson has described the state visit as a chance for Ireland and Great Britain to heal the wounds of the past. That, perhaps, is too pessimistic a view, as the wounds have all but healed, thanks in part to her efforts.

Considering the congeniality between our two nations at all levels, it is hoped that President Higgins’s visit will build on the past but look to the future.


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