Dozens of intrigued tourists stood outside Sovereign’s Entrance in the Palace of Westminster yesterday as the Lifeguards, resplendent in scarlet, prepared to line the stairs to the royal gallery to welcome
Upstairs ushers in tailcoats gently directed serving and retired MPs, members of the House of Lords and guests to their seats.
Members of the Dáil and Seanad, such as Fine Gael's Frank Feighan and Labour's Jack Wall, saluted friends and colleagues from the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly.
Mr Higgins was due shortly after 4.15pm after travelling the short distance in the royal Bentley which was adorned with a Tricolour. Mistakenly believing he had arrived, the crowd rose early, before realising the error.
Welcoming Mr Higgins, the speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, said that while the use of the word "historic" was hackneyed, the occasion was exactly that – and was one unthinkable just a few decades ago.
“It is clearly appropriate,” he said, as he turned to the President and his wife Sabina, adding that “the past 800 years, never mind the last 100” had often seen conflicts “over this shared corner of western Europe”.
Like any professional politician, Mr Bercow noted the President’s past ministerial and political career and his vote-gathering ability – noting he had been elected with a higher vote than anyone before in Irish politics.
Weeks ago a good portion of yesterday's audience had taken their seats in the royal gallery to honour German chancellor Angela Merkel. Yesterday's applause had a warmth about it that was absent then.
The gallery is dominated by the work of an Irish man, Daniel Maclise, whose paintings of the battle of Waterloo and the battle of Trafalgar adorn two of its walls – the largest paintings anywhere in the Palace of Westminster.
An explanatory note in the guide given to all guests noted that the painting of the battle of Waterloo “illustrated the important moment in the battle when victory was assured”.
Having been greeted by the words of Mr Bercow, the President was seen off by the lord speaker of the House of Lords, Baroness D'Souza, who even outdid her Commons counterpart in praise. Describing Mr Higgins as a poet and an intellectual, she said that he was a representative of a nation that had brought forth Joyce, Shaw and Yeats, who had "fought censorship, inequality and resistance to social and political change".
“This is a treasured tradition from a remarkable country that the UK is proud to call a friend. You are a renaissance man for a renaissance era in UK-Irish politics.” She said his presence in the royal gallery was a testament that that era had already begun.