All is changed, changed utterly

Analysis: Britain and Ireland are delighted with the successful State visit

President Michael D Higgins and  Queen Elizabeth  before the banquet held at Windsor Castle. Photograph: Alan Betson

President Michael D Higgins and Queen Elizabeth before the banquet held at Windsor Castle. Photograph: Alan Betson

Sat, Apr 12, 2014, 01:10

History, good and bad, has happened inside the walls of the Houses of Parliament in Westminster for centuries and then, sometimes, it comes back as scenes in a film.

Yesterday, dozens of film extras – the women dressed in pre-Great War clothing, the men mostly as police with shiny buttons – gathered in New Palace Yard just yards from Big Ben.

There, cameras rolled, filming scenes for Suffragette, which records one woman’s fight for the vote, starring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and Brendan Gleeson.

Last Tuesday, the Palace of Westminster saw yet another page in history when Michael D Higgins made the first of a series of speeches during the week. The question, perhaps, is whether film-makers, or storytellers, in decades to come will look at Higgins’s words when they tell the history of British-Irish relations in the 21st century.

In the days since, there has been a kaleidoscope of memories: the Windsor procession; or the Guildhall’s performance of Amhrán na bhFiann , sweet, light, ethereal, so unlike anything usually heard.

Equally, there was British prime minister David Cameron’s momentary emotion – even discounting the coldness that lies at the heart of politics, as he welcomed Higgins to Number 10.

Or, perhaps, the sight of former Conservative prime minister John Major, who sat in the VIP presidential box in the Royal Albert Hall, minus the man who was his partner in the Downing Street Declaration, the now ailing Albert Reynolds.

The degree of the warmth of the official welcome has been noticed and appreciated, too, by the Irish side.


Cordiality benchmark
So where do British-Irish relations stand now? Disaster and success are usually exaggerated. Undoubtedly, however, the Higgins visit has set a new benchmark in cordiality, which will seep elsewhere. Too many Irish, perhaps, will mistakenly believe the people of Britain thought about Michael D Higgins and nothing else during the course of this week. They did not, of course.

If politically interested, they paid more attention to British culture secretary Maria Miller’s resignation over expenses or the rise of the UK Independence Party in the polls.

If not, they may have had more interest in Manchester United’s defeat by Bayern Munich, or Chelsea’s triumph over Paris St-Germain in the Champions League.

Even if one, or indeed both, are correct, it still does not diminish the value of the seeds that have been sown by the President, but also by those who have welcomed him, during five days in April.

In the Albert Hall late on Thursday, a choir put together by the London-Irish Centre in Camden gave full-throated backing to The Parting Glass .

If Higgins’s visit has meant much to the Irish in Ireland, it has meant more to the Irish in Britain, whose sense of belonging there has been copper-fastened.


Celebration of belonging
Too often, the Irish in Britain have been denigrated by the Irish at home as “plastic Paddies”, even if their Irish identity has been central to their sense of themselves. That sense of belonging, but also of pride, was evident in the Albert Hall.