Shadow and Shelter

The State visit of President Michael D Higgins to the United Kingdom

Emerging from the Shadows

"Ar scáth a chéile a mhairimíd – We live in the shadow of each other"

President Michael D Higgins' use of a seanfhocal or wise saying succinctly explained the relationship between Ireland and the United Kingdom in his speech at the State banquet in Windsor Castle.

But certain words can have different meanings and so it is with "scáth", which, as the President told the invited guests, can also be translated as "shelter".

Moving from the negative connotation of "shadow" he spoke of the "inevitability of both mutual influence and interaction" that the close proximity of the islands has brought throughout history.

That this influence and interaction has at times been both turbulent and mutually beneficial was not lost on those present.

Queen Elizabeth also spoke of a shared past while looking to a future where after "so much chequered history" the goal of living side-by-side as "neighbours and friends" is within our reach.

Reconciliation, Closeness, Commitment, Interdependence, Cooperating, Understanding, History, Relationship – these words were central to the dialogue of the visit.

So too were the intertwined histories of Ireland and the United Kingdom – from the 12th Century marriage of Aoife and Strongbow to Catholic Emancipation in 1829 and the Easter Rising of 1916.

The fight for Irish independence cast a "long shadow across our relations", with separateness and disunity further casting Ireland’s relationship with its closest neighbour deeper into the shadows.

Latterly, the bitter conflict of The Troubles in Northern Ireland drove a wedge between both islands that few believed would ever have been bridged.

Both nations suffered, with unimaginable losses on all sides and while on the one hand our proximity to each other was keenly felt, at the same time the nations were at their furthest distance from each other in a seemingly endless cycle of mutual distrust and fear.

But after years of turmoil and loss the shadows began to fade and a new optimism emerged, cemented by the overwhelming endorsement of the Good Friday Agreement in joint referendums in 1998 – people wanted peace, they wanted security and they wanted shelter from harm.

Now in 2014, in the first address by an Irish President to both Houses of Parliament at the Palace of Westminster, Mr Higgins could speak of "today’s reality – the mutual respect, friendship and cooperation which exists between our countries".

Ireland and the UK share much more than a physical proximity – from centuries of dependence and through the bitter struggle for independence, both countries now enjoy a level of interdependence through trade and investment, political cooperation and cultural and sporting connections.

Far from being in the shadow economically, Ireland was last year the fifth biggest export market for British companies, while Britain was the second biggest export market for Irish businesses.

Interdependence also means that Ireland does not passively lie in the shelter of its larger neighbour, but mutual influences and cooperation mean that both countries provide each other with "shelter" across a range of interactions.

President Higgins told politicians from across the political spectrum that "what we now enjoy... is a friendly, cooperative partnership based on mutual respect, reciprocal benefit and deep and indelible personal links that bind us together in cultural and social terms".

The State visit of President Higgins to the UK was unimaginable even as little as a decade ago – and following on from the Queen’s visit to Ireland in 2011 has cast the relationship between Ireland and the UK into a completely new reality.

Having emerged from the shadow of conflict and mistrust to become "pioneers" on a "new path of hope and opportunity" it seems possible that the complex layers of interdependence now experienced will provide constant shelter for both islands.

"Ireland and Britain live both in the shadow and in the shelter of one another, and so it has been since the dawn of history"

Speech by President Michael D Higgins to State Banquet
The Living and the Dead

"There is a balance to be struck between looking back at what has happened and cannot be changed, and looking forward to what could happen if we have the will and determination to shape it."

The words of Queen Elizabeth II were delivered at the state banquet but they could sit easily as an inscription at any of the sites of remembrance that have been central to both her visit to Ireland and the visit of President Higgins to the UK.

Set them at the Garden of Remembrance, Islandbridge, Mezzine, or the memorial to Lord Mountbatten and they would equally resonate with those who consider the message.

For it is this balance between the living and the dead, the forgotten and those who cannot and should not be forgotten that is key to the progress that both the President and Queen Elizabeth speak of.

Yes, two countries divided by a chequered history have made unimaginable strides forward, cultural, economic and political ties have been strengthened, ghosts have been laid to rest, and perceptions debunked, but only when this balance between the living and the dead is struck will the two communities in Northern Ireland replicate the progress made by the two countries.

Between 1969 and 2001, 3,523 people died as a result of the conflict.

The words of Mr Justice Gillen in his civil case judgment on the Omagh bombing could be applicable to all: "The barrier of time has not served to disguise the enormity of this crime, the wickedness of its perpetrators and the grief of those who must bear its consequences."

As the British press focused on the presence of former IRA commander Martin McGuinness in the bastion of the British empire toasting the monarch, the evolution of his role and that of Peter Robinson comes into even sharper focus.

It is for them and their parties to turn words to deeds, aspirations to realities and lofty ideals to practical workable peace and progress.

For the grief spoken of by so many still dwells in homes across Ireland, North and South. Not everyone wants nor demands a public inquiry but many still crave the truth behind their loss, a sense of recognition and a sense of reconciliation, in their hearts and minds, if not necessarily in a judicial sense.

Peace of mind is no less important than a political peace. It is no coincidence that those who struggle with the legacy of the past have yet to find the measures rather than the words to deal with the issue.

When the words of this visit fade, political leaders and peace brokers such as Richard Haass and Meghan O'Sullivan must strive to find a way of dealing with the past. There can be no hierarchy of victimhood.

Those who crafted the speeches for the visit appear to share a common view that this debate on the past is not yet over but arguably needs to be accelerated to a conclusion which may not please all, but remains an imperative that cannot be ignored.

Consider the words of President Higgins: "We owe a duty to all those who lost their lives, the duty to build together in peace, it is the only restitution, the only enduring justice we can offer them. While we grieve together for lost lives, we will not let any aspect of our shared history deflect us from crafting a future that offers hope and opportunity for the British and Irish people."

No one individual doubts that dealing with the past is critical to the future just as no one individual has the answer. Surely there must be a collective answer to a collective issue.

Have we the resolve and the leadership to see the political process through to the peace process and can we do it in the period of commemoration that encompasses the Somme, the Rising and the end of the Great War?

If we have then we surely we will have done some service to the living and the dead.

Histories Intertwined

As he prepared to leave Coventry at the end of the week, President Higgins told his audience that the visit "had its essential share of ceremonial formality, but at its heart it has been about the warmest of relations between close neighbours".

In truth, there were a number of political themes to the week: exorcising the ghosts of difficult times for the Irish in Britain in the past; subtly urging the North's politicians to try harder; highlighting the strength of our trade links and the warmth of relations generally.

It was striking to hear Queen Elizabeth recognising the discrimination suffered by the Irish, an injustice that had for generations been denied or ignored; moving too, her acknowledgement that Britain was a better place for the sweat, toil, and imagination of the Irish community.

And when she declared that her family would stand shoulder to shoulder with us as we celebrate the events that led to Irish independence she was sending out a powerful signal that will prove controversial.

It will inevitably pose questions for Sinn Féin. The party shunned the royal visit to Ireland three years ago; this time they had no option but to recognise the political realities, and acknowledge the status and role of Queen Elizabeth and her family.

How can the party now avoid similarly acknowledging that the story of the Irish fight for independence was more nuanced than some of the foundation myths might suggest?

And if you recognise the Queen and what her family represents, why not recognise her parliament?

If you've enjoyed the hospitality at the Windsor canteen, can you still refuse to get stuck in at the Westminster workshop?

There's no doubting that the two visits have boosted trade in a way that no official mission could have achieved.

Amazingly, there was no British-Irish Chamber of Commerce in Dublin until the royal visit to Ireland in 2011.

There was huge interest in the Irish experience at functions in London's Square Mile.

It was telling though, that much of the questioning at one business breakfast in London's Mansion House focused on how we had emerged from the crash and not a little incredulity that Ireland is still standing.

Throughout the week there were differing emphases.

Queen Elizabeth noted that the goal of living together as neighbours and friends was "within reach".

For the President those relations had already reached a pitch that could not be improved. The distinction perfectly reflected British reserve and Irish enthusiasm.

Another telling distinction, linguistic this time, was identified by President Higgins in an eloquent reflection on shared language at Shakespeare's birthplace.

English, he observed, possesses "the shortest, most explosive and emphatic of negatives" while in Irish there is no single word for "no".

All illustrating that whatever the legacy of this visit, we will remain different peoples.

Who, for instance, could imagine an English audience bellowing their approval when their home place was namechecked from the stage, as the packed Albert Hall did with abandon with every mention of Carlow, Kilkenny or Cork?

It was that Irish confidence that marked the many events as much as the splendid pageantry.

Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore may come to rue those waves to the crowd from the gilded royal carriage in Windsor, but like everyone else involved over the week, he was up for celebrating our ability to stand as equals with our neighbours.

And why not celebrate it? By rights we should be down and out; our spirit wasn't broken over seven centuries; we might have been felled by any number of self inflicted blows since independence, but we're still standing.

Boxers mark the end of a bout by touching gloves.

Perhaps that's what we saw in that week, a final acknowledgement that whatever blows, low and otherwise, that might have landed in the past, the bell has sounded and we can both clamber out of the ring with our heads high.

Speech by Queen Elizabeth II to State Banquet
Countless journeys across the sea

It was no big deal, and it was a very big deal. Relations between London and Dublin are excellent as far as most issues are concerned.

The visit-sceptics could well argue that all the parading, pomp and ceremony, all the speechifying and all the band-playing did not amount to much really.

The British are our nearest neighbours. We understand each other, and for the most part we get on well together.

So the first state visit by an Irish President to the UK is not worth getting excited about. No big deal.

Not so.

Outside Windsor Castle on the visit's first day, waiting for the parade bringing our President and Queen Elizabeth to her home by horse-drawn carriage, local council workers handed out small Tricolours and Union Jacks.

A British-Irish couple were in the crowd. She's Irish, he's English, and they live in Basingstoke, not far from Windsor.

When the mini-flags arrived, their five-year-old son chose a Union Jack. His younger sister, just to be different, took a Tricolour. As their happy parents held them up, the children waved their flags in the sun.

The sheer joy of the occasion could be felt all around, as emigrants, their children, the lovers and friends of emigrants, tourists and local people with children on a half-term break, all for the parade.

It was the start of a good day out in the sun, with the splash of Orange and Green, and Red White and Blue all around us.

Of course, a state visit does not change anything. More than anything else, it symbolises and cements a relationship already established.

The welcome for our President was a particularly warm one, one of the royal staff told me. It's rare for visiting heads of state to be invited to Windsor Castle.

The Obamas, for example, stayed at Buckingham Palace, a building he said the royals regard more as an office than a home.

The British went to great lengths to welcome our President. Parades, flags, bands, best china on the table at Windsor, their politicians gathering to listen to President Higgins' speech at Westminster, and so on.

Not forgetting that first mark of respect to our head of state, in those bilingual royal tweets sent out just after his arrival in London:

Tá Londain bainte amach ag Uachtarán na hÉireann agus ag Bean Uí Uiginn, agus chuir ionadaí na Banríona fáilte rompu. #Fáilte #Cuairt Stáit

The President of Ireland and Mrs Higgins have arrived in London, and were greeted by The Queen's representative #Welcome #IrishStateVisit

One Irish diplomat assessed the visit's importance in a simple sentence. "It's the final recognition by the British state of our independence. In that sense, it comes at the end of a process that began in 1921."

The State visit may not lead to any developments in British-Irish or North-South relations, or in Northern Ireland. It's too early to say.

Most of us would like to think it might at least improve the atmosphere for a further attempt to resolve disputes in Northern Ireland over flags, parades and the past.

What is surely a very big deal is not just the closeness of the London-Dublin relationship which the visit celebrated.

The joint approach to Northern Ireland, which is one of the pillars of that relationship, is based on a mutual recognition of two identities in the North.

Consider how things can go wrong in a place like Ukraine when governments fail to acknowledge such differences, and work together to accommodate them.

That, and the President's embrace of our emigrants at a time of high emigration, are the aspects of the visit that resonated strongly with all those who were a part of it.

A Passion for Truth

President Higgins, the poet politician, places more value on words than most. Not for him the type of political writing scorned by George Orwell, where “I think” gives way to “In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that...”

In the eight speeches President Higgins gave on his State visit to the UK, he used over 12,000 words; each and every one carefully and deliberately chosen.

Addressing the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, President Higgins began by quoting his fellow poet turned president, Czech writer and statesman Václav Havel.

“Words are a mysterious, ambiguous, ambivalent, and perfidious phenomenon. They are capable of being rays of light in a realm of darkness… They are equally capable of being lethal arrows. Worst of all, at times they can be the one and the other. And even both at once!”

The duplicitous nature of words is especially relevant in the context of an Irish visit to the UK, given the history of our islands, and the forcible replacement of Irish by English.

The President did not ignore the darker side of “the once enforced language of conquest”, but went on to say that it is now “the very language in which we have come to delight in one another, to share our different and complementary understandings of what it means to be human together in this world, transacting in the currency of words”.

He argued that Irish writers have taken the English language to new heights, invoking Joyce, Beckett, Wilde, Shaw, Yeats and Heaney, who exercised “their imaginations in our doubled English”.

English, once the language of oppression, has been used to spell out a new Irish identity. We are changed, but not diminished.

Language brings people together. The five most powerful words Queen Elizabeth spoke when she visited Ireland came in her simple opening, “A Uachtaráin agus a chairde...”

It was a carefully considered gesture, eliciting a “wow” from then president Mary McAleese, and welcomed even by many who oppose monarchies in general and the British one in particular.

When introducing President Higgins to the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, Speaker John Bercow said he was a President in the spirit of Yeats.

President Higgins, once dubbed the King of the Arts Faculty by The Saw Doctors, did not disappoint, giving a thoughtful and powerful speech.

He did not gloss over a troubled history, remarking that “the pain and sacrifice associated with the advent of Irish independence inevitably cast its long shadow across our relations”.

However, he went on to say that we now have “a fresh canvas on which to sketch our shared hopes and to advance our overlapping ambitions”.

Summing up the state of relations between Ireland and Britain today, he quoted Irish nationalist MP Tom Kettle: “Free, we are free to be your friend”.

It is remarkable that given the topics the President covered in his speeches, the most controversial comment he made concerned the world of sport.

While many Irish people are happy to call England home, and the friendship he spoke of is real and enduring, the President using his address to the Guildhall Banquet to pledge his support to England in the upcoming World Cup Finals went a little too far for some.

But real leaders, like poets, have to push boundaries and open up new possibilities. It’s hard to believe many Irish people will follow his lead and cheer for England, but it is a sign of the evolving relationship between our two nations that he felt free to take such a position.

In his poem, When Will My Time Come, President Higgins writes:

"When my time comes / I will have made my journey / And through all my senses will explode / The evidence of light / And air and water, fire and earth. / I live for that moment."

Has that moment arrived? Only he can say, but the President has done his country proud.

Highlights of the State Visit
Darina Daly, David Davin-Power, Lochlann Mac a’ Bháird, Cathal MacCoille, Declan McBennett

Title image courtesy of Majesty Magazine, Getty Images, PA, EPA, Fennell Photography

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