State visit marks a sovereign and equal British-Irish relationship


“Ar scáth a chéile a mhairimíd. The shadow of the past has become the shelter of the present.”

President Higgins’ vivid, almost poetic image and metaphor for the evolving nature of the British-Irish relationship is likely to stick in many minds as the enduring memory of this state visit, as much as the pomp of the great Windsor Castle dinner or the fluttering of Tricolours and Union flags together on the capital’s streets so beloved of some of the gushing media coverage.

Speaking at the dinner on Tuesday evening the President managed to convey the complexity of that relationship of interdependence and intertwined lives. “The word [SCATH]embodies,” he argued, “the simple truth that physical proximity brings with it an inevitability of both mutual influence and interaction. But more importantly, I believe, it implies reciprocal hospitality and generosity …’’

We are sovereign, separate, equal, yes. But we also lean on each other in ways that we could never do, or acknowledge, in times when the shadows of the past shaped a tetchier, more abrasive relationship. It was one that was characterised until even a generation ago by relics of a master-servant mentality, on one side by an implicit inferiority complex often fed by a condescension of which Roy Foster wrote in this paper yesterday (and which, as he noted, may still afflict the Scottish debate).

Formally the visit is, at its most simple level, first and foremost a proper acknowledgment by the British state of our standing as equals in the community of nations, and it’s remarkable how long it has taken to happen. In truth, of course, most of us on both sides of the Irish Sea have long shed the chips on shoulders, and have long behaved in our mutual exchanges like citizens or representatives of equal sovereign states. For some the crucial assertion by Ireland of national self-confidence, claiming “our place among the nations”, came as late as accession to the EU when this State assumed its place at the European high table – at official level the process saw the profound deepening and genuine warming of political/ministerial contacts that were extended again at the highest levels in the peace process in the North.

The shared interest in the North has also transformed and deepened the relationship over the years from a formal dialogue between states wary of each others’ sovereign prerogatives to a partnership in which mutual interests are acknowledged, almost a sharing of power.

President Higgins’ state visit is about giving an important formal public acknowledgment to the redefinition of the special relationship between the two states, a sui generis combination of kinship, business, cultural and political ties that bind us irretrievably, and, for now, happily together. Some mutual sheltering from the global storms.