Monthly Archives: April 2014

New Chapter Written as U.K. State Visit of President Higgins Draws to a Close

What will probably be remembered for its significance in our peace process was the Northern Ireland reception at Windsor Castle and the exchange of commendations between Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, and Queen Elizabeth II who both acknowledged each other’s roles in reconciliation.

The quadrangle of smiles at the greeting between them as President Higgins and First Minister Peter Robinson of the DUP look on, captured in the photo accompanying the Irish Times report, says much; about how far we have come in terms of reconciliation on the island of Ireland and between the islands of our Atlantic archipelago, about the human dimension and the role of leaders in peace building, about the potential for the Nationalist and Unionists traditions to find ease with each other within what the great peace builder John Hume called “the totality of relations” between Britain and Ireland.

Bringing the opposing parties together used to be a role played by the United States under President Clinton’s guidance in Washington.  It is a genuine mark of the historic nature of President Higgins’ visit that we see it happening now locally, as it were, under familiar livery.  There is no doubt that the visit will help buoy the leaders on all sides as they seek to work through the issues and challenges that remain in our peace process.

The festive highlight of the programme yesterday was the celebration of Irish arts and artists at the Albert Hall, the Ceiliúradh, organised by Culture Ireland ( .  As the Irish Independent reported, ‘Taking to the stage to uproarious applause, he said: “On a night like this it is great to be Irish.” He added it was “even better” to share it with “our friends in Britain”.’

Today is the final day of the historic visit when President Higgins and his wife Sabina will bid farewell to his royal hosts.  Our poet President will pay his respects to the great bard Shakespeare by visiting Stratford-Upon-Avon to acknowledge the world’s greatest playwright, a formative writer in the English language which we Irish have adopted and moulded as our own.

Then a visit to Coventry to view its ruined 14th century Cathedral as a symbol of the damage wrought by the German bombing raids during WWII: he will also meet with the strong Irish community there whose roots were laid during the city’s booming manufacturing in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. The President and his wife will depart for Ireland from Coventry Airport.

The official visit of the President of Ireland has written a new chapter in Irish British relations.  It has come at an ideal time as we encounter commemorative centennial rendezvous with some of the most contentions episodes in our history, including the 1916 Rising, the 1919-1921 War of Independence, the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 which partitioned Ireland, the opening of the Northern Ireland parliament in June 1921 by George V, the Treaty Negotiations December 1921, the achievement of Independence in January 1922 and the Irish civil war 1922-23.

By taking stock of the progress in our relationship and registering the genuine warmth between Ireland, North and South, and between Ireland and Britain as displayed by the visit, we can commemorate and remember these events in ways that embrace all of the dimensions of Irish, British Irish and Unionist identities.

I wish you a happy Easter and wonderful Passover celebration,



 Some links:

 Report on the Albert Hall celebration here

And the President’s speech there is here

The Northern Ireland reception here

Final day and farewell is anticipated here


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Highlights of President Higgins State Visit, Wednesday 9th April

The President and his wife Sabina had a very busy schedule embracing many themes in Anglo-Irish relations.  The President called on Prime Minister David Cameron at Downing Street where the improvement in Anglo-Irish relations were noted by both principals, as well as our strong economic ties where 40% of indigenous Irish exports go to Britain and where Ireland is Britain’s fifth largest export market. 

There was then a short trip to Winsdor Castle to view some of its historic artefacts associated with Ireland.  This included the Colours of Irish Regiments of the British Army retired in 1922 when Ireland became indepedent.  The names are evocative; the Connaught Rangers, the Royal Munster Fusiliers, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, the Prince of Wales Leinster Regiment and the Royal Irish Regiment.

The President then called to City Hall where he was greeted by London’s Lord Mayor Boris Johnson and met fifty young people, including a number from Northern Ireland.  As the President remarked, “In my visits to Northern Ireland I have met with many remarkable young people, already on the path to becoming actors in building a more open and ethical society. They are young people who understand only too well that prejudice or old grievances do not evaporate overnight when peace is announced or new legislation is passed. They know that animosities can only be removed when, as citizens, we transcend such legacies, let go and reach a true sense of human empathy and solidarity with each other, thereby diminishing the toxic impact of sectarianism.” 

During the President’s visit to the Royal Society he noted that the contribution of Irish scientists was often obscured by Irish achievements in the arts. He said that because so many Irish people had succeeded in the worlds of literature and the arts, Ireland’s contribution to science had been overshadowed.  He cited inter alia the scientific achievements of mathematician William Hamilton; physicists John Tyndall and Nicholas Callal; and William Parsons who, in building the world’s largest telescope was able to discover new celestial bodies.  The President looked forward to enhanced cooperation between Science Foundation Ireland ( ) and the Royal Society to support Irish scientists of outstanding potential.

A central theme of the visit is the contribution of the Irish to all walks of British life and the way in which the Irish have made a home for themselves in Britain.  A good example is the thousands of Irish NHS workers, some of whom the President met at University College Hospital.  He met the newly arrived, those well established and those retired, including Mary Talbot who had arrived in England in 1938.  As the Irish Times’ Miriam Lord reported, “Bernadette Porter from Raphoe in Co Donegal proudly wore on her uniform the MBE she got from Prince Charles in Buckingham Palace this year for her great work in the area of multiple sclerosis.” 

Lord captures too the pride and its undertow of discomfiture that is inevitable in meeting these fine people:  “President Higgins had hugs for the hugely proud and delighted retired nurses, who stood up tall and bade him welcome, tears in their eyes. And he had applause, and then some more, for the men and women who give so much to their adopted country but still love their native land. And that was the real lump in the throat moment. Not anything prompted by pageant or ritual. Just a pride, a deep sadness and yes, a feeling of anger that these wonderful people are not back home doing what they do.”

The keynote event of the day was the banquet at the City of London’s Guildhall hosted by the Lord Mayor of the City of London (its distinct financial district), Fiona Woolf.  There were some seven hundred guests, primarily from the business sector but also featuring some famous names from the arts and showbusiness.  His speech noted the antiquity of the relationship between this august venue and Ireland: “I am of course conscious of the particular role that the Guildhall has played in Irish history. It was here, in 1609, that the Irish Society was conceived, during a meeting at which representatives from the livery companies of London considered undertaking a plantation in Ulster, on lands recently seized from Gaelic chieftains, and the construction of the first planned city in Ireland, on the Western bank of river Foyle.”  

The main focus on the President’s Guildhall speech was the strengths of the Irish economy, the human cost of the financial crisis and Ireland’s recovery.  The President voiced his deeper concerns about the ethical questions that the financial industry and its crises raised: “When the financial and technological forces that hold sway are unaccountable and seem more powerful than Governments, it poses the question as to who is responsible for their consequences. These are profound issues which require a rich public discourse that seeks to find and craft a sustainable and ethical relationship between economy and society. We need, for example, an approach that embraces the totality of the work of the great Adam Smith. Yes, we may be familiar with the author of the utilitarian Wealth of Nations; but we also need the so much more ethically minded author of Theory of Moral Sentiments.”

Tonight the President and his delegation will attend the Ceiliúradh (celebratory festival) at the Royal Albert Hall where leading Irish musicians, singers, actors, authors and poets will celebrate the range and depth of creative Irish endeavours Ireland, underling the contribution of the Irish community in Britain. Performing guests include from the world of music Paul Brady, the Gloaming, Glen Hansard, Imelda May, actress Fiona Shaw, author Joseph O’Connor and broadcasters Dermot O’Leary and the great Olivia O’Leary, plus I understand some surprise appearances.

 Links to some highlights and speeches below.


Miriam Lord’s column here

Report on the meeting at Downing street here

Windsor Castle museum here 

President Higgins’ speech at the youth event, City Hall, here

Visit to the Royal Society here and his speech here

The President’s Guildhall speech here

Information on the Albert Hall event is here


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Some Highlights of President Higgins State Visit, 8 April

The official visit of President Higgins to Britain has if anything exceeded expectations in terms of its ceremonial welcome and the depth of the symbolism of rapprochement between Ireland and Britain.

Renowned Irish historian Roy Foster puts the visit in its historical context here:

Speaking at Westminster, the scene of so much drama in Anglo-Irish relations from the speeches of Daniel O’Connell and the manoeuvrings of Charles Stewart Parnell to the passage of John Redmond’s Home Rule Bill in 1914, President Higgins paid tribute to all the Irish who made a contribution to Britain whether in the corridors of the Commons or in society generally.  Irish Times report here: .

Writing in the Irish Independent, Lise Hand evocatively captures the State Banquet at Windsor Castle here

A great photo of the Banquet is here

The keynote speeches of this visit were delivered at this Banquet.  The full text of the speech by President Higgins is here

President Higgins declared in his speech that “Ireland and Britain live in both the shadow and in the shelter of one another, and so it has been since the dawn of history. Through conquest and resistance, we have cast shadows on each other, but we have also gained strength from one another as neighbours and, most especially, from the contribution of those who have travelled between our islands in recent decades.” He went on “This present occasion, which completes a circle begun by your historic visit three years ago, marks the welcome transformation in relations between our countries over recent years a transformation that has been considerably progressed by the advancement of peace in Northern Ireland.”

The President concluded “The future we each desire, and seek to work towards is one where Ireland and the United Kingdom stand together to seek common opportunities and to face common global challenges as partners and friends.”

The full text of Queen Elizabeth’s speech is here She declared that ‘the goal of modern British-Irish relations can be simply stated. It is that we, who inhabit these islands, should live together as neighbours and friends. Respectful of each other’s nationhood, sovereignty and traditions. Cooperating to our mutual benefit. At ease in each other’s company. After so much chequered history, the avoidable and regrettable pain of which is still felt by many of us, this goal is now within reach.”

Significantly, the Queen said that “my family and my government will stand alongside you, Mr. President, and your ministers, throughout the anniversaries of the war and of the events that led to the creation of the Irish Free State.”  This has been interpreted as a hint that she may attend the centenary commemoration of the 1916 Rising.

The impact of the Rising was dramatic in terms of Irish history and on the private lives of individuals in ways that were at times hidden, indeed kept secret.  In a wonderful piece of writing and remembrance, Elaine Byrne writes here about a family history of the involvement of past generations of her family in the British Army and service in the WWI, a history rendered secret by the paradigm shift in Irish identity and loyalty brought about by the 1916 Rising.  It beautifully captures in a family history the twists and turns of Ireland’s early twentieth century and how that affected Irish identity: In so doing, it adds depth and insight to the historic and symbolic significance of the events in London this week.

Finally, there was significance too in the attendance at the State Banquet of Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister in the devolved, power-sharing Northern Ireland Government.  A report on Unionist reaction is here .

More tomorrow,



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President Higgins goes to London

This is an historic week in Anglo-Irish relations as the President of Ireland begins his first official state visit to Britain today.

The rapprochement between the Heads of State of Ireland and Britain had evolved over the years with the visits of Presidents Robinson and McAleese during the 1990s, which included meetings with Queen Elizabeth II.  Building on this goodwill and the developments associated with the Northern Ireland peace process, Queen Elizabeth II’s official visit to Ireland in March 2011 saw historic and deeply felt gestures of reconciliation, including a visit to Ireland’s Garden of Remembrance for those who died in the cause of Irish freedom.

In making his official journey, President Higgins reciprocates and in so doing establishes a new era in relations between Ireland and Britain.

That this visit seems so fitting is a reflection of the cooperation and friendship that has developed at other levels between the Irish and the British, from culture and business to government-to-government and within the European Union.  So it would be easy to miss its significance.  Set in its historic narrative, what is happening this week overturns an historic relationship between the imperial and the colonised that arguably spanned eight hundred years and confirms a relationship now of equality and concord.

That we are about to commemorate the centenary of the 1916 Rising and the road to independence in 1922 stands testament to the unfinished business that bedevilled Anglo-Irish relations throughout the twentieth century, obstructing post-independence reconciliation between the Ireland and Britain.

That unfinished business was partition.  The partition of Ireland was in 1921 a blunt solution to a complex problem of divided loyalties, contending identities, localised popular affiliations and territorial control.  When Northern Ireland exploded in civil strife in 1969, Anglo-Irish relations were set on a contentious course for over a decade and more.

Only in the 1980s did the two governments come together to find a way forward, creating one of the finest Irish diplomatic achievements with the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, the intergovernmental platform that ultimately helped deliver the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

Finding peace meant exploring different strands of what it meant to be Irish.  The struggle for independence had narrowed the definition of what being Irish meant but in recent decades there has been a recovery of the full complexity and variety of what being Irish could mean.

By the late 1980s Ireland came to recognise, for example, Irish service in the armed services of other states.  During his visit, President Higgins will attend a viewing of the Colours of disbanded Irish regiments in the British Army.

This process has helped to close the gap between the different traditions in Ireland, most dramatically represented by the iconography of 1916; for Irish nationalists the iconography of 1916 has been the Easter Rising just as for Unionists it has been the loyal sons of Ulster “marching toward the Somme”.  We can now approach the centenaries of these events with a more magnanimous backward glance, recognising the legitimacy of the motivations of all those men who fought in their various ways for their country.

As carefully crafted as that of the British monarch’s visit to Ireland, the President’s programme in Britain has many elements designed to capture our relationship not just as history but as a reflection of today’s realities: you can read about the full programme here

I’ll post updates @EamonnMcKee and there will be a lot of coverage including at so be sure to have a look at the events unfold in this most historic and important week in Anglo-Irish relations.



Eamonn McKee

Ambassador, Tel Aviv




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