Celebrating our friendship
President Michael D Higgins’s State visit to the United Kingdom next week brings one momentous period of British-Irish relations to an end and opens up a new one that will be more friendly yet still challenging. His host Queen Elizabeth II is no ordinary monarch to Irish citizens but the head of a state and a former empire to whom a required oath of allegiance provoked civil war after the 1921 Treaty. Residual resentment, which alongside the Northern Ireland troubles, prevented her predecessors coming here until her extraordinary visit in 2011 has now been transformed into a close interdependence demanding strategic political attention.
An impressive effort has been made by Queen Elizabeth and the British government to ensure full ceremonial symbolism and political links are made available so Mr Higgins can connect fully with the Irish involvement in Britain. His contacts with the royal family, the government and parliamentarians, and with business, community, arts and entertainment leaders will give ample opportunity to express these intimate links. The Irish emigrant involvement in building Britain’s canals, railways, roads, hospitals and other infrastructures over the last 300 years leaves an indelible and abiding imprint, as does Irish participation in Britain’s wars, social movements, cultural life and politics. So does the equivalent and continuing British influence here.
These individual stories and human narratives can now be told and analysed more enthusiastically, openly and critically than before. That is the real meaning of the more normal and mature Irish relationship with Britain established over the last generation. It is wholly welcome and worthwhile and fully justifies this official visit. It can, as Mr Higgins wrote yesterday in this newspaper, “celebrate and consolidate this new stage in our relationship, reinforce our commitment to a positive future and encourage a continued fostering of friendship and co-operation between our two nations as we face new challenges”.
The most important of these challenges concerns how to manage changes in the international and national settings faced by the two states. Northern Ireland is a continuing joint interest and project as political powersharing matures without sufficient community reconciliation to sustain it. Mutual economic links are highly beneficial and properly competitive. Two major issues stand out for strategic management from Ireland’s point of view. Scotland’s vote on independence next September, whichever way it goes, has many implications for Ireland North and South as the result will change the UK and could even catalyse decisions on Irish unity. The UK’s decisions on the European Union are equally consequential for Ireland. Our interest in them demands close attention and clear expression.