Standing shoulder to shoulder at long last

President Michael D Higgins, with Prince Philip in the background, inspecting the troops of the Queen's Company Grenadier Guards.       | Photo: Fennell Photography

President Michael D Higgins, with Prince Philip in the background, inspecting the troops of the Queen's Company Grenadier Guards. | Photo: Fennell Photography

There cannot have been a better time in our country’s history to have had a poet-President than last week in London.

And there has never been a greater era of co-operation, trust and genuine friendship between the people of Ireland and the United Kingdom than what currently exists.

The eloquence of President Michael D Higgins was never in greater evidence than it was during his speeches at Westminster and Windsor Castle.

As an Irishman, I was immensely proud to see our President and Mrs Higgins, representing our country with such distinction during the State visit to the United Kingdom.

As for those who doubt the relevancy of the Office of Uachatarán na hÉireann, given what its current and previous two incumbents have achieved in terms of Anglo-Irish co-operation, they should retreat back into whatever cave they crawled out of.

That Dan Mulhall, a proud Waterfordian from the ‘top of the town’, was ensconced as Irish Ambassador in London during last week’s historic proceedings, added a great deal of local pride to the pleasantries.

President Higgins’s referencing the marriage of Strongbow and Aoife in Waterford during his Westminster speech, along with nods to Waterford scientists Robert Boyle and Ernest Walton last week, underlined Port Láirge’s strong links to the British capital.

There are few families in the Deise who’ve not had a relative who lived or is living ‘across the water’; at present, there are one million Irish-born men and women domiciled in Britain.

Both my aunts found work in London through the National Health Service, which was also acknowledged by the President when he met with nursing and medical staff last week.

Indeed their parents, my grandparents, worked in London for a time over 70 years ago, and like countless other Irish people, I’ve been enamoured by London, along with Manchester, Cardiff and Edinburgh on the many occasions I’ve visited those cities.

During an interesting (and worth noting – entirely reasonable) debate on Facebook last week, I found myself in disagreement with more than one person about the prospect of a British Royal presence in Dublin for the 1916 centenary commemoration.

And given the context which last week’s State visit to Britain provided me with, I felt wholly justified in posting the following: “Time to move on in my opinion. We can’t forget the past but we can’t live in it either.

“If the Wolfe Tones can release a version of ‘The Sash’ (!), if the predominant political adversaries in Northern Ireland can sit in government together, if the British national anthem can be respected in Croke Park, if the Queen of England can come to this country and respect the men of 1916 as she did and our President can be appropriately feted by our neighbours as he (was last week), then I can live with the Royals having a presence here come 2016. “Britain gave my two aunts employment through the NHS, my paternal grandparents met (in London) when there was no work at home and my maternal great-grandfather earned a wage from the Royal Indian Navy during WWI.

“Think of all the (Irish) families who’d have had no money at all only for work in Britain…it’s time to move on. The war is over. France and Germany, after centuries of war and millions dead, made peace. Ireland and Britain have done likewise.”

No perfect peace is ever won. Peace is made and won by compromise, while acknowledging the tradition of those who were once your enemy.

The sins of the past will weigh more heavily on some than others, but surely we cannot enslave ourselves to an ideology which despises ‘the Brit’, which beats the ‘800 years of oppression’ drum, which seeks Irish unity via the bomb and the armalite.

That doesn’t mean we forget Cromwell, that doesn’t mean we forget the Famine, that doesn’t mean we forget the Black and Tans, that doesn’t mean we forget the B Specials, two Bloody Sundays, etc.

But equally, the opposing tradition and our neighbouring state shall always be cognisant of Warrenpoint, of Enniskillen, the murder of Lord Louis Mountbatten, of Brighton, of  Warrington, of Omagh.

Appalling things happen in war and in the course of prolonged conflict; savage, barbarous acts are committed in the name of nations.

Lest we forget indeed, but we cannot determine our shared futures by squaring them exclusively with past horrors and grave injustices. We must move on. We are moving on.

Addressing MPs, Lords and Baronesses last week, President Higgins declared: “Today, we have a fresh canvas on which to sketch our shared hopes and to advance our overlapping ambitions.

“What we now enjoy between Ireland and Britain is a friendly, co-operative partnership based on mutual respect, reciprocal benefit, and deep and indelible links that bind us together in cultural and social terms.”

That he made those comments in a palace which features the busts of William of Orange, of Parnell, of Cromwell and of Grattan, demonstrates the intertwining binds of Anglo-Irish relations and the permanency of those ties.

President Higgins (along with presidents Robinson and McAleese) and Queen Elizabeth II have led by example in recent years.

Times have certainly changed between Ireland and Britain – and welcomingly for the better.

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