Miriam Lord: Gourd of honour for German president as Áras springs back to life

The red carpet is dusted off and the dogs practise diplomatic etiquette for state visit

They don’t do things by halves in the Áras.

When the president of Germany arrived at the start of his three-day state visit to Ireland, not only did he get a guard of honour in the courtyard but there was a gourd of honour under the portico as well.

The first one was drawn from the 7th Infantry Battalion of Cathal Brugha Barracks, while the second was a festive Halloween assortment of pumpkins, squashes and Minister of State Thomas Byrne spookily arranged around the entrance pillars.

(Technically, all ministers of state qualify as gourds because they dream about their pumpkin portfolios turning into full ministerial carriages at the wave of a taoiseach’s magic wand.)

President Michael D Higgins and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier know each other quite well. They last met six weeks ago at a meeting in Rome of the Arraiolos Group of EU non-executive presidents. During the State visit to Germany by Michael D in 2019, the two presidents joined musicians on stage at the end of a special Other Voices concert in Berlin and looked like they were loving it.

At their meeting on Wednesday in Dublin, they discussed a wide variety of issues including the future of Europe and the need for greater social cohesion and dialogue, post-Covid adjustment and the upcoming Cop26 conference. The need to protect and promote regional languages within the EU was of particular interest to them.

The visitors caused consternation on Merrion Row when they went for lunch in Bang restaurant and the street was closed to traffic for the duration

Brexit, not surprisingly, was also on the menu. The President thanked Germany for its support during the recent Brexit negotiations, especially regarding the Northern Ireland protocol.

Speaking of menus, Michael D and his wife, Sabina, hosted a State dinner at the Áras for the German head of state and his wife, Elke Büdenbender. Earlier in the day, the visitors caused consternation on Merrion Row when they went for lunch in Bang restaurant and the street was closed to traffic for the duration.

Wet carpet

Back at the Áras, the rain came down and they kept the plastic cover on the red carpet for as long as possible. First to sashay down it was Thomas Byrne, the Minister for European Affairs, who left his gourd of honour at the steps and stood facing the guard of honour while the band played a salute.

Then the President emerged into the mid-morning gloom and did his own shimmy down the carpet and the band played his special salute.

The Germans were running late. Michael D and Sabina made one unsuccessful foray to the carpet to await their guests but had to scuttle back inside to shelter from the rain. This meant another large squash at the door, as if there weren’t enough there already.

It was a shame they didn't play a jaunty medley of tunes from The Frank and Walters

The First Dogs, Bród and Misneach, ambled around the place before they were persuaded to toddle off somewhere quiet before the VIP guests arrived and a 21-gun salute was fired. The 25-pounders were in a field directly opposite the Áras, barrels trained on the mansion. Onlookers prepared to witness a routine state visit or a military coup.

The Higginses and the Steinmeier-Büdenbenders met midway along the red carpet, and the two Presidents did a fist bump while the two first ladies had a little hug. Then the music struck up and the president of Germany went off to inspect the guard of honour as the guns went off and the masonry stayed on.

It was rousing stuff, the marching music adding a spring to the step, although it was a shame they didn't play a jaunty medley of tunes from The Frank and Walters, for the day that was in it. Old rocker Michael D would have loved it.

The sun came out, the party went indoors and Frank-Walter signed the visitors book.

“I am grateful to have a friend in the Irish presidential office and look forward to ever closer contacts/relations between our countries,” he wrote in German. Sounds like he’s never going to have a line of cult tea cosies knitted in his honour.

Good egg

Unlike President Michael “Tea” Higgins, President Steinmeier is a former minister for foreign affairs. He used to be former Social Democrat chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s chief of staff. He is also a good egg – he donated a kidney to his wife. And his job is up for renewal next February, but he isn’t a cert for a second term due to coalition horse-trading going on between the political parties back home.

After the discussions finished, Michael D and Sabina appeared at the French doors leading to the back lawn and our National Dogs perked up no end. Up to this, they had been doing their official duty splendidly by charming the visiting officials and journalists.

Misneach, the youngest, bounded up to meet he boss. She is still a diplomat in training and word is she is coming along very well and is not as shy as she used to be. Bród, the big wise head on him, barrelled along enthusiastically on creaky old joints.

The Bernese mountain dogs held a watching brief as President Steinmeier and Ms Büdenbender took it in turns to ring the Peace Bell. The bell was unveiled by then President McAleese in May 2008 to mark the 10th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement.

Michael D and Sabina then took their guests to see The Plough and the Stars, an art installation incorporating a 1930s Wexford Star Plough, which commemorates workers rights and the 1913 lockout. As always, the visit ended with a tree-planting ceremony. The buglers played a fanfare as the German VIPs wielded the pristine presidential shovel with Misneach in close attendance and contemplating, but ultimately deciding against, an inaugural widdle.

It was a relaxed morning and a pleasant way for President Steinmeier and his wife to kick off their state visit. As for Michael D and Sabina, they look thoroughly delighted to be out and about and entertaining visitors in the Áras again.

There are only so many one-hour Zoom lectures a president (and his audience) can take.