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 www.rte.ie so be sure to have a look at the events unfold in this most historic and important week in Anglo-Irish relations.
Ambassador, Tel Aviv