Higgins hails honest approach to history binding nations
President tells of poignant moment when memories of IRA father flooded back
Members of the Mary McHugh School of Dancing in Coventry wait in anticipation of meeting President Higgins during the final part of his state visit to Britain. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
The Very Reverend John Witcombe, Dean of Coventry, showing President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina the New Cathedral in Coventry during the final part of the Presidents state visit to Britain. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
His father, John was an IRA intelligence officer in North Cork during the War of Independence, breaking with his brothers in the Civil War that followed when he took the anti-Treaty side.
In Coventry’s Guildhall yesterday, minutes before he left to return to Ireland at the end of his State visit, Mr Higgins mused on the thoughts generated by four days of pomp and ceremony.
“I thought of my father, to tell you the truth. I thought of my uncles: the terrible fact that they were on different sides went through my mind,” he said.
Queen Elizabeth well knew of his family’s history.
Since Tuesday, he said,both of them had “emphasised very honest versions of the past” in the speeches given. “No attempt on either side to affect some kind of forced amnesia. That wouldn’t have authenticity. We do have different versions of similar events,” he said.
The visit had made “an enormous difference” to the sense of neighbourliness held by Britain and Ireland towards each other, he told The Irish Times.
From the days of the earliest planning, he said it had been clear to him that the British were not “going through the motions of a formal visit”.
Questioned about those in Ireland, or elsewhere who would still have a negative view of the British, Mr Higgins stopped for a moment, almost surprised by the question.
“To those who would have any reluctance, think of all the things that we have in common. We are not required to become involved in any amnesia.
“Just see all of the opportunities and the possibilities that are there,” he said.
T he “riches in each other” have sometimes been missed “by being too close”, he added.
During his years as a TD and senator, Mr Higgins - unlike all bar a few of his contemporaries - travelled to Britain each December to visit Irish community centres and groups.
His association with Coventry had started even earlier, when he saw Connemara natives return from the Warwickshire city each July in time for the races in Ballybrit.
Once, Coventry was home to the third-largest Irish-born community in Britain. Today, however, the first generation numbers are thinning out.
“When we came first, there was quite a bit of hostility about, but not now,” said Armagh-born Colm Nugent, who emigrated in the late 1950s. “It was a boom town then, they just couldn’t make enough cars, they couldn’t find the labour. You could jack up a job today, and find another one tomorrow.”
Irish emigrants are not coming to Coventry in great numbers these days. “They are more likely to go to Australia, to Canada, or to the United States, if they’re going anywhere.”
Immigrants, their children and grandchildren - some the fruits of inter-marriage with other ethnic groups who came after the Irish - still share a pride in a place called “home”.
Hundreds of them gathered yesterday outside Coventry’s two cathedrals to welcome Mr Higgins, who had earlier visited the Royal Shakespeare Company and William Shakespeare’s birthplace.
In a visit that has reconciliation at its heart, the choice of Coventry was appropriate, since it,too, put reconciliation at its heart as it rebuilt after the second World War.
The cathedrals mark the before and after: one a ruin left by the Luftwaffe in 1940; the other which opened with Benjamin Britten’s first-ever performance of War Requiem, which laments the futility of war.