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 (www.sfi.ie ) 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 http://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/uk/hospital-visit-a-tonic-for-proud-irish-staff-1.1756373?page=1
Report on the meeting at Downing street here http://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/cameron-extends-warm-welcome-to-vip-lunch-guest-at-number-10-1.1756370
President Higgins’ speech at the youth event, City Hall, here http://www.president.ie/speeches/speech-at-youth-event-city-hall-take-charge-of-change-glac-seilbh-ar-athru/
Visit to the Royal Society here http://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/irish-scientists-overlooked-in-favour-of-artists-says-president-1.1756413 and his speech here http://www.president.ie/speeches/speech-by-michael-d-higgins-president-of-ireland-at-the-royal-society-london
The President’s Guildhall speech here http://www.president.ie/speeches/speech-by-michael-d-higgins-president-of-ireland-guildhall-banquet-london
Information on the Albert Hall event is here http://www.royalalberthall.com/tickets/ceiliuradh/default.aspx