herald

Thursday 19 April 2018

Historic trip to Britain shows the true state of the nations

A THREE-DAY state visit involving a joint-address to the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

There's no doubt about it, the visit of President Michael D Higgins (inset) to Britain next April will be ground-breaking.

Ever since Queen Elizabeth came here in 2011, diplomatic work has been going on behind the scenes to arrange a return visit. The speed with which it has been arranged is indicative of the friendly relationship that has developed between the two nations over the past decade.

FRIENDSHIP

Former president Mary Robinson broke the ice in 1993 when she was the first serving Irish president to visit the queen at Buckingham Palace. It was termed an official visit, but was in effect more of a courtesy call.

But President Higgins' visit will be different – it will be a state visit, which is the highest symbolic expression of friendship and solidarity between two sovereign nations.

What's more, the president and his wife will stay at Windsor Castle, a place usually used only by visiting US presidents such as Ronald Reagan, and other members of the British royal family.

How times have changed.

Like many of you, I can remember the dark days of the Troubles in the 70s, 80s and 90s when the IRA took its bombing campaign to mainland Britain.

A state visit such as this seemed an impossible dream back then.

But we're now three decades on since Anglo-Irish Agreement which laid the path for the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process.

Next year's presidential visit should mark the final step on the road to formally normalising the relationship with our neighbour.

Even since Strongbow arrived in Wexford some 800 years ago, the destinies of Ireland and Britain have been intertwined, and at times there has been a difficult relationship between the two.

President Higgins is no stranger to Britain, having spent time studying there in his younger years. In latter times, as president, he has championed the Irish diaspora in London, Birmingham and Manchester.

In the 1960s, I'm sure he may have heard of, or even encountered, the animosity felt by some in Britain towards Irish people.

When I worked there in the mid-60s on building sites, I can recall the jeers, taunts and racial insults. I remember being shocked and angered at seeing the notorious signs on London boarding houses that read: "No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish". Such incidents are not tolerated any more.

Yet we must never forget that during the bleak economic times this country endured in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, Britain opened its doors to Irish workers fleeing poverty and misery back home.

REPUTATION

The money they sent back kept bread on the table in many an Irish home.

Around 500,000 Irish people live in Britain, and many more are of Irish extraction. There is now real and genuine recognition of the contribution Irish people have made at all levels.

As an ambassador next year we could have none better to represent us than President Higgins. He has a reputation as a civil rights activist, an intellectual and is also an experienced politician. His visit will be a source of immense pride to the Irish diaspora.

And despite the constraints imposed by diplomatic decorum, I'm sure he will impose his character on this trip – so expect at least one poem.

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