Tricolour and Union Jack fly side by side in Windsor
The President’s visit has started in a blaze of tributes and pageantry
Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister Northern Ireland , speaking to Brian O’Driscoll and Amy Huberman at the banquet held at Windsor Castle during the state visit of President Higgins. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times
In his account in his memoirs of the day he became the first Irish head of government to address MPs and peers in the Palace of Westminster seven years ago, Bertie Ahern recalls finishing the day canvassing on the Navan Road in Dunlin at ten o’clock that night.
President Michael D. Higgins yesterday, however, became the first Irish head of state, not just of government, to address members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords in the same Royal Gallery room.
His day finished with dinner and rest in Windsor Castle.
Throughout the day, the full panoply of British pageantry was on offer, perfectly groomed and timed, where the tricolour and Union Jack flew together, side by side, along the streets of Windsor, as horse-drawn carriages brought Queen Elizabeth and the President to Windsor Castle.
State visits happen in London twice a year. Usually, the leaders return to their home countries having garnered just a few paragraphs in the Fleet Street papers, but ignored by television cameras unless they are, perhaps, French, German or American.
By comparison, the Higgins visit has attracted bounteous British coverage, but the appetite is not limitless .
The extent of the advance coverage disappointed some in the Irish in Britain community.
It can be argued that too much of yesterday’s coverage centred not on the new era in British-Irish relations, but, rather, on Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness’ attendance at last night’s State banquet.
In truth, President Higgins’ four-day visit could not have taken place without seismic changes in Northern Ireland, but relations between Ireland and Britain are now about more than just Northern Ireland.
Before he travelled to London, President Higgins had once again insisted the peoples of the islands cannot indulge in amnesia – the actions of the past will one day have to be faced and dealt with.
That past includes the IRA’s killing in 1979 of Lord Louis Mountbatten, uncle to Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and a second cousin of the Queen, which President Higgins remembered when he and his wife Sabina bowed their heads at his memorial in Westminster Abbey.
In the Royal Gallery, however, he concentrated on the positives: “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.”
Independence for Ireland is greatly cherished and had been “fought for by my father and many of his generation”, though the pain and sacrifice that came with it cast its long shadow across our relations, causing us, in the words of the Irish MP Stephen Gwynn, to “look at each other with doubtful eyes”.
The Queen’s 2011 visit showed “how far we have come”, he said, progressing “from the doubting eyes of estrangement to the trusting eyes of partnership and, in recent years, to the welcoming eyes of friendship”.
Asked before he came if those who had caused the violence had shown enough humility, President Higgins had declared they had “sought genuinely to establish a distance between versions of themselves and actions which they thought were necessary, but when it came to humility there could be a good deal more”.
Praising constitutional Nationalists of the past, he noted pointedly London and Dublin had “a shared responsibility to encourage and support” Northern Ireland politicians, but it is they “who need to complete the journey of making peace permanent and constructive”.
In his speech, he sought to emphasise the ties of culturecreated by generations of Irish emigrants, including his own siblings “who have made their mark” on Britain.
“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.”
Some of those emigrants were in the room, including Kilkenny-born Séamus McGarry and Sligo-born Andy Rogers and Dubliner, Sally Mulready, all now London-based and all holders of the President’s Distinguished Service Award.
Like so many others, they have laboured long in the vineyard of the life of the Irish community in Britain.