LONDON – In a historic first, the president of Ireland began a state visit to Britain on Tuesday to mark the growing reconciliation between his nation and the one that long ruled it from afar through centuries of oppression and rebellion.
After a bloody war of independence and decades of mistrust, London and Dublin have become increasingly close partners linked by trade, history and culture. The rapprochement was made possible by the 1998 accord that ended armed sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, which remains part of Britain but enjoys a measure of self-rule.
The four-day visit to Britain this week by Irish President Michael D. Higgins will witness the 16th anniversary of that landmark pact, known as the Good Friday Agreement. On Tuesday, Higgins was given a warm ceremonial welcome – unimaginable only a generation ago – at Windsor Castle by Queen Elizabeth II, whose grandfather was the last king of Ireland before it gained independence in 1922.
In an address later to both houses of Parliament in London, Higgins said that the Anglo-Irish relationship had “achieved a closeness and a warmth that once seemed unachievable.”
“We acknowledge (the) past, but . even more, we wholeheartedly welcome the considerable achievement of today’s reality: the mutual respect, friendship and cooperation which exists between our two countries, our two peoples,” Higgins said to a standing ovation.
He paid tribute to the queen, who made history three years ago by becoming the first British monarch to set foot in the Irish republic as a foreign head of state rather than as the reigning sovereign. Despite fears that it could go badly wrong, Elizabeth’s visit turned out to be a widely praised diplomatic success that paved the way for Higgins’ own trip.
The heady symbolism of various events of that first visit is being repeated here in Britain. Just as the queen laid a wreath at a garden in Dublin dedicated to the Irish who died trying to throw off the yoke of her own ancestors, Higgins paid tribute at the grave of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey, an icon of British military sacrifice during World War I. Tens of thousands of Irish fought as British soldiers in that conflict.
In an even more startling move, a one-time commander of the Irish Republican Army – the largely Roman Catholic militant group that killed the queen’s cousin Louis Mountbatten with a bomb on his yacht in 1979 – was expected to attend a banquet in Higgins’ honor at Windsor Castle. The former IRA man and sworn enemy of Britain, Martin McGuinness, is now deputy leader of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government, which includes republicans like McGuinness and loyalists to the British crown, who are mostly Protestants.
“We could find all sorts of reasons why we should not accept an invitation from Queen Elizabeth to go to her house, and, no doubt, she has any number of reasons as to why she should not invite us,” McGuinness said. “But the reality is that we’ve agreed that this is an important thing to do.”
The state visit is being followed closely by media in Ireland, where many see the pomp and circumstance being accorded Higgins as a seal on Britain’s acknowledgment of their country as a nation on equal footing rather than a recalcitrant former vassal.
“There’s often been a sort of paternalistic attitude from the British government, the establishment, the press,” said Ivan Gibbons, director of the Irish Cultural Center in London. “The head of state of the Republic of Ireland, with a population of 4 million, is being treated as an equal for the first time as the head of state of a former colonizing, occupying power. The symbolism of that is very, very important.”
Higgins was elected to the largely ceremonial post of president in 2011 after a distinguished career as an academic, lawmaker and poet. During his stay in Britain, he is scheduled to meet with Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson. Traveling with him is Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny.
The thawing of relations across the Irish Sea has led to fuller cooperation in combating terrorism and greater mutual economic investment. Hit hard by the euro debt crisis – Dublin was forced to seek an international bailout in 2010 to stay afloat – many Irish have moved to Britain to find jobs.
Higgins, 72, came to England himself as a young man and worked as a waiter. Some of his siblings also settled here.
“Generations of Irish immigrants have made their mark on the development of this country. . I’m very proud of the large Irish community that is represented in every walk of life in the United Kingdom,” he told members of Parliament.
“What we now enjoy between Ireland and Britain is a friendly, cooperative partnership based on mutual respect, reciprocal benefit and deep and indelible personal links,” Higgins said. “Long may our two peoples and their parliaments walk together in peace, prosperity and ever-closer friendship.”