President Higgins’s State visit takes place almost 55 years to the day on which Seán T O’Kelly became the first Irish president to be officially welcomed on British soil.
The President’s visit occurs against the backdrop of a new era of friendship and co-operation in Anglo-Irish relations. However, things were rather different on April 6th, 1959, when O’Kelly made a brief appearance in southwest England. His presence proved to be a complication for British police, who had to move quickly to provide him with protective security following a threat on his life.
Unlike Higgins, O’Kelly was not in England as an invited guest or for diplomatic or official purposes. He was merely travelling through England on his way home from the United States. In March 1959, O’Kelly had concluded a triumphant 10-day state visit to America. He had addressed the US Congress and had visited centres of Irish population in eight states.
O’Kelly had used his visit to the US to strongly denounce partition. On his trip home, the liner on which he had sailed docked in Plymouth. From there, O’Kelly was to transfer by car to Exeter airport to catch a flight to Dublin.
Anglo-Irish relations were at a low-ebb when O’Kelly set foot in Plymouth. The previous month, Eamon de Valera, in his last term as taoiseach, had engaged in a war of words with British prime minister Harold Macmillan over the constitutional status of Northern Ireland.
This row was not helped by O'Kelly's loud criticisms of partition in the US, especially as Macmillan was in the US at the same time for discussions with the US president.
Despite these tensions, O’Kelly was welcomed by the lord of mayor of Plymouth GJ Wingnett and Baron Roborough, the lord lieutenant of Devon and “Queen Elizabeth’s personal representative in that county”. O’Kelly was touched by this gesture and he asked that his gratitude be passed on to “her majesty”.
O’Kelly had visited England in a private capacity in 1956 to attend his sister’s funeral in Bournemouth, but this was the first time that an Irish president was acknowledged on British soil. The occasion was not without drama because an anonymous phone call was made to Devon police headquarters threatening the safety of the president. O’Kelly was whisked away to the airport where police officers “stood guard over the plane from the moment of its arrival until its departure with the president and his party.”
Although O’Kelly was the recipient of minor diplomatic courtesies as he passed through England, the notion of an Irish president paying a formal state visit to the UK was unthinkable in 1959.
This was rooted in the complexities of partition. Up until the Belfast Agreement in 1998, the British government was very reluctant to recognise the title "President of Ireland", in case this might be construed as an acceptance that the president was head of state in Northern Ireland.
During O’Kelly’s presidency, British concerns in this regard were such that there was intricate diplomatic wrangling over the usually routine manner of the signature of letters of credence for ambassadors ,with both countries using the wording that they believed appropriate.
The letters of credence presented by the Irish ambassador to the Court of St James were signed by the “President of Ireland”, while the corresponding documents presented by the British ambassador, Sir Gilbert Laithwaite, were addressed to “the President of the Republic of Ireland.”
After the ratification of the Belfast Agreement and the removal of the territorial claim in articles two and three of the Constitution, British unwillingness to accept the title “President of Ireland” evaporated.
On March 4th, 2011, Buckingham Palace responded to Mary McAleese’s historic invitation by announcing “the queen has been pleased to accept an invitation from the president of Ireland to pay a state visit to Ireland this year”.
The fact that a president of Ireland reciprocated this visit and was accorded full diplomatic honours by the queen underlines the normalisation in relations between the two islands.
Brian Murphy has recently completed a PhD thesis in
the school of history and archives, UCD