A formal, three-day state visit by President Michael D Higgins to Britain next April will mark a further step in the “normalisation” of relations between the two states. While economic and diplomatic relations have never been better, or security co-operation closer, this visit should help to dismantle any residual negative attitudes.
A two-year hiatus in the exchange of state visits is regarded as being unusually short, while the prominence accorded to the occasion, with President and Mrs Higgins staying at Windsor Castle and being entertained at a state banquet by prime minister David Cameron, reflects its diplomatic importance. Economic and social ties have grown closer in recent decades. Ireland now qualifies as Britain’s fifth largest export market and one-third of Irish imports are sourced there. We purchase one-quarter of all exports produced in Northern Ireland.
A past, oppressive relationship and the historical and emotional baggage that went with it altered with independence and later EU membership. The Belfast Agreement, signed in 1998, allowed the people of Northern Ireland to decide their own destiny and established a powersharing Executive there. It represented an unprecedented political advance. Five years before that, diplomatic ties and good public relations were carefully fostered when president Mary Robinson met Queen Elizabeth in London. President Mary McAleese continued to develop those links, leading to the first formal visit by a British monarch to Dublin since the foundation of the State.
The timing of the State visit by Mr Higgins is significant in the context of recent developments in Northern Ireland. Over the years, a degree of lassitude affected the powersharing Executive in coping with divided communities, along with parades, flags and legacy issues. Loyalist disaffection grew. Riots followed. United States special envoy Richard Haass was invited by Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness to mediate and he has been consulting with political parties and local groups. Mr Haass hopes to enter a negotiations process with the political parties next month and expects the two governments to provide undertakings in relation to legacy issues.
Good relationships are key to political progress. They provide a supportive backdrop in challenging situations. Queen Elizabeth’s State visit to Dublin represented an official commitment to change and opponents of the Belfast Agreement were routed in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections. While negotiations get under way on such locally contentious issues as parades and emblems, it is important that the larger, positive picture is kept in focus. As a champion of ethical behaviour and an inclusive, balanced society, Mr Higgins is well placed to do so.