Higgins pays tribute to Irish parliamentarians in House of Commons

President says idealism of O’Connell served to guide, many years later, the momentous Good Friday Agreement

President Michael D Higgins has addressed both houses of parliament at the Palace of Westminster in London on the first of his four-day State visit to the UK


President Higgins paid tribute to the Irish parliamentarians who for more than a century represented the aspirations of the Irish people in the House of Commons in the course of the first ever address delivered by an Irish head of state in the Palace of Westminster.

The President recalled the contribution of Irish political leaders from Daniel O’Connell to those who helped to get Home Rule on the statute book 100 years ago.

“Next month marks the centenary of the passing of the Home Rule Act by the House of Commons - a landmark in our shared history.

It was also here that the votes of Irish nationalist MPs in 1911 were instrumental in the passage of the Parliament Act, a critical step in the development of your parliamentary system,” the President told MPs and Lords who listened to his speech in the Royal Gallery at Westminster.

He also pointed out history was made in 1918 when the Irish electorate chose the first woman to be elected to parliament, Constance Markiewicz, who chose not to take her Westminster seat but, rather, to represent her constituents in the first Dáil Éireann.

“Nearly 90 years earlier, the passage of the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 was secured by the leadership of our great Irish parliamentarian, Daniel O’Connell.

O’Connell’s nationalism set no border to his concern for human rights; his advocacy also extended to causes and movements for justice around the world, including the struggle to end slavery.

He was totally dedicated to seeking freedom, as he put it: “attained not by the effusion of human blood but by the constitutional combination of good and wise men.”

President Higgins said while O’Connell may not have achieved that ambition during his own lifetime, it was such idealism that served to guide and influence, so many years later, the achievement of the momentous Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

“That achievement was founded on the cornerstones of equality, justice and democratic partnership, and was a key milestone on the road to today’s warm, deep and enduring Irish-British friendship.”

He said both countries could take immense pride in the progress of the cause of peace in Northern Ireland although there was still a road to be travelled.

“I stand here at a time when the relationship between our two islands has, as I have said, achieved a closeness and warmth that once seemed unachievable.

The people of Ireland greatly cherish the political independence that was secured in 1922 - an independence which was fought for by my father and many of his generation.”

President Higgins said the pain and sacrifice associated with the advent of Irish independence inevitably cast a long shadow across relations between the two countries.

“We acknowledge that past but, even more, we wholeheartedly welcome the considerable achievement of today’s reality - the mutual respect, friendship and co-operation which exists between our two countries.

That benign reality was brought into sharp relief by the historic visit of Queen Elizabeth to Ireland three years ago.

“Her Majesty’s visit eloquently expressed how far we have come in understanding and respecting our differences, and it demonstrated that we could now look at each other through trusting eyes of mutual respect and shared commitments.

“The ties between us are now strong and resolute. Formidable flows of trade and investment across the Irish Sea confer mutual benefit on our two countries. In tourism, sport and culture, our people to people connections have never been as close or abundant.”

The President said generations of Irish emigrants had made their mark on the development of the United Kingdom.

“As someone whose own siblings made their home here, I am very proud of the large Irish community that is represented in every walk of life in the United Kingdom.

That community is the living heart in the evolving British-Irish relationship. I greatly cherish how the Irish in Britain have preserved and nurtured their culture and heritage while, at the same time, making a distinctive and valued contribution to the development of modern Britain.”

President Higgins also noted that this year the UK commemorated the start of the First World War.

“In Ireland too, we remember the large number of our countrymen who entered the battlefields of Europe, never to return home.”

He said Nationalist MP Tom Kettle who died in that war as “an Irish patriot, a British soldier and a true European” understood that be authentically Irish we must also embrace our European identity.