State visit marks a flourishing together
President Michael D Higgins, in completing the first State visit to Britain to well-deserved acclamation has surpassed the high expectations set for this historic four-day trip. He has raised Ireland’s profile in the minds of British people, and his visit gave sectors of industry (food, fashion and tourism) a brief opportunity to advertise their presence to a market of 64 million people.
This State visit has served both to recognise the huge contribution the Irish in Britain have made to the development of the country of their adoption; and also to acknowledge what Ireland has gained from its often turbulent relationship with the UK.
Ireland and Britain, as the President said, live in both the shadow and the shelter of each other. Both countries are moving on from a troubled past, to a present and future based on mutual respect involving greater co-operation and partnership. A recent joint Irish/UK trade mission to Asia was evidence of this new spirit. The Good Friday Agreement, which reflected a historic compromise between nationalists and unionists, has made this possible.
Presidents and monarchs must be careful not to usurp the role of governments in policy making. Heads of state nevertheless can provide inspiration and leadership by transformative gestures. Who can forget when in 2011, Queen Elizabeth stood with bowed head at the Garden of Remembrance, having laid a wreath to honour those who died fighting for Irish freedom. A symbolic act, it was also full of political meaning. It was in some respects reminiscent of West German chancellor, Willy Brandt’s famous gesture of humility in Warsaw in 1970, kneeling in an act of national atonement. That marked a turning point in German-Polish relations. Likewise, the symbolism of Queen Elizabeth’s gesture three years ago may well be seen as a defining moment in Anglo-Irish relations.
President Higgins in his speech at Westminster reminded his audience of the Irish contribution to the British parliamentary tradition, which too often has been devalued in Irish history. Daniel O’Connell, as President Higgins pointed out, was not just a nationalist leader with a singular focus but an internationalist too, involved in the fight to abolish slavery. Ireland and Britain, having known only too well what separates both countries, are rediscovering how much they have in common.
More than 200 years ago, another great Irishman, Edmund Burke, expressed the hope that “England and Ireland may flourish together”. For, he said: “The world is large enough for us both. Let it be our care, not to make ourselves too little for it.” History did not evolve as he had then hoped. The State visits of Queen Elizabeth to Ireland and this week’s successful visit by President Higgins to the UK, suggest hope and history should now have a better chance of rhyming.