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Dublin: 9 °C Saturday 23 August, 2014

‘A closeness and warmth that once seemed unachieveble’: Higgins’ address to Westminster

In a speech to both Houses of Parliament, the President told members that Ireland and the UK “now look at each other through trusting eyes of mutual respect and shared commitments”.

Michael D Higgins addresses MPs and Peers at Westminster today
Michael D Higgins addresses MPs and Peers at Westminster today
Image: Johnny Bambury/Fennell Photography

Updated 5.35pm 

PRESIDENT MICHAEL D Higgins has told the Houses of Parliament in Westminster that Ireland and the UK have achieved a “closeness and warmth that once seemed unachievable”.

The President’s address marks yet another historic first on his five-day trip. It’s the first ever state visit by an Irish president, and comes three years after the Queen became the first British monarch to visit the Republic of Ireland, in May of 2011.

Prior to the speech the President laid a wreath at the tomb of the unknown warrior in Westminster Abbey and paused for a moment at the plaque in memory of the Earl and Countess Mountbatten, relatives of the Queen, who were murdered by the IRA in the 1970s.

PresHigginsWestminsterAbbey8

Source: Malcolm McNally

A short time later, the Irish delegation, including the Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, were warmly welcomed in the Royal Gallery in Westminster Palace , a stunning gothic hall, decorated with portraits of monarchs from George I to Queen Elizabeth II. Previous speakers there have included Bertie Ahern, Nicolas Sarkozy, Bill Clinton, Kofi Annan, and, most recently, Angela Merkel.

In front of a hall which included Prime Minister David Cameron, deputy PM Nick Clegg, Foreign Minister William Hague, Labour leader Ed Miliband and other senior British politicians, the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, said that “historic” was an appropriate term to be applied to the visit, saying it would have been “very difficult to imagine a few decades ago”.

“You could not be more welcome than you are today,” he told Higgins, describing him as a president in the spirit of WB Yeats.

‘Doubtful eyes’

Queen Elizabeth drew widespread praise at the time for her remark in a speech at Dublin Castle, that in the shared history of Britain and Ireland, with hindsight “some things should have been done differently, and others not at all”.

Higgins echoed that sentiment in this afternoon’s speech, telling the assembled MPs and members of the House of Lords, “the pain and sacrifice associated with the advent of Irish independence inevitably cast its long shadow across our relations, causing us, in the words of the Irish MP Stephen Gwynn, to: ‘look at each other with doubtful eyes’.”

We acknowledge that 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.

Higgins paid a warm tribute to the Queen, and to her accomplishments in helping bring the two nations closer together.

That benign reality was brought into sharp relief by the historic visit of Queen Elizabeth to Ireland three years ago.

Her Majesty’s visit eloquently expressed how far we have come in understanding and respecting our differences, and it demonstrated that we could now look at each other through trusting eyes of mutual respect and shared commitments.

The assembled parliamentarians, including (front-row) Secretary of State William Hague, Leader of the Opposition Ed Milliband, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Prime Minister David Cameron. [Screengrab/RTÉ]

Higgins referred to the strengthening trade links between Ireland and the UK, and spoke of the huge contribution of the Irish diaspora to British society.

The ties between us are now strong and resolute. Formidable flows of trade and investment across the Irish Sea confer mutual benefit on our two countries. In tourism, sport and culture, our people to people connections have never been as close or abundant.

Generations of Irish emigrants have made their mark on the development of this country. As someone whose own siblings made their home here, I am very proud of the large Irish community that is represented in every walk of life in the United Kingdom.

That community is the living heart in the evolving British-Irish relationship. I greatly cherish how the Irish in Britain have preserved and nurtured their culture and heritage while, at the same time, making a distinctive and valued contribution to the development of modern Britain.

Higgins concluded his historic address as Gaeilge, telling the parliamentarians:

Gur fada a ghabhfaidh pobail agus parlaimintí an dá oileán seo le chéile go síochánta, go séanmhar agus sa chairdeas buandlúite idir Éire agus an Bhreatain.

[Long may our two peoples and their parliaments walk together in peace, prosperity and ever closer friendship between Ireland and Britain.]

The President concludes his address, to a standing ovation from the parliamentarians [Screengrab/RTÉ]

Among Irish attendees were the Fine Gael TDs Joe McHugh and Frank Feighan, Labour’s Jack Wall, and the Fine Gael senator Paul Coghlan – all chairs of Oireachtas British-Irish Committees.

Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister and Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness was also present. Sinn Féin MPs Paul Maskey, Michelle Gildernew and Pat Doherty were all in the hall, despite the fact none of the three take their seats in the House of Commons – a longstanding party policy.

After the speech, which received sustained applause and a standing ovation, the Lord Speaker Baroness D’Souza said that the joint efforts of the Irish and British have led to a “long overdue equilibrium in our diplomatic relationship”.

“You are a renaissance man for a renaissance era in UK-Irish politics,” she told President Higgins.
  • Follow our Political Editor @oconnellhugh for updates from the State visit

- additional reporting from Hugh O’Connell in London 

Here’s the full text of the speech: 

On the first day of this State Visit, I have been graciously and warmly
welcomed by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth at Windsor Castle, and I have come to this place from a poignant and uplifting visit to Westminster Abbey. I am greatly honoured to be the first President of Ireland to address you in this distinguished Palace of Westminster.As a former parliamentarian, honoured to have spent twenty-five years as a member of Dáil Éireann, and a further decade serving in our Upper House, Seanad Éireann, it constitutes a very special privilege to be speaking today in a place that history has made synonymous with the principle of democratic governance and with respect for a political discourse that is both inclusive and pluralist.At the very foundation of British democracy is, of course, the Magna Carta which includes this powerful statement:“To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay, right or
justice.”Those beautiful and striking words have echoed down the centuries and remain the beating heart of the democratic tradition. Their resonance was felt immediately in Ireland through the Magna Carta Hiberniae – a version of the original charter reissued by the guardians of the young Henry III in November 1216.They are also words which echo with a particular significance when we have so recently seen the adverse consequences of a discourse that regards politics, society and the economy as somehow separate, each from the other; this is a divisive perspective which undermines the essential relationship between the citizen and the State. Today, as both our countries work to build sustainable economies and humane and flourishing societies, we would do well to recall the words of the Magna Carta and its challenge to embrace a concept of citizenship rooted in the principles of active participation, justice and freedom.Such a vision of citizenship is shared by our two peoples. It is here, in
this historic building that, over the centuries, the will of the British
people gradually found its full democratic voice. It is inspiring to stand
in a place where, for more than a century, many hundreds of dedicated
parliamentarians, in their different ways, represented the interests and aspirations of the Irish people.Next month marks the centenary of the passing of the Home Rule Act by the House of Commons – a landmark in our shared history. It was also here that the votes of Irish nationalist MPs in 1911 were instrumental in the passage of the Parliament Act, a critical step in the development of your parliamentary system.History was also made here in 1918 when the Irish electorate chose the
first woman to be elected to this parliament – Constance Markiewicz – who, of course, chose not to take her Westminster seat but, rather, to represent her constituents in our independent parliament, the first Dáil Éireann. Constance’s sister, Eva Gore-Booth, who is buried in Hampstead, had been making, and would continue to make, her own distinctive contribution to history – not only in the Irish nationalist struggle, but as part of the suffragette and labour movements in Britain.Nearly 90 years earlier, the passage of the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 was secured by the leadership of our great Irish parliamentarian, Daniel O’Connell. O’Connell’s nationalism set no border to his concern for human rights; his advocacy also extended to causes and movements for justice around the world, including the struggle to end slavery. He was totally dedicated to seeking freedom, as he put it:“attained not by the effusion of human blood but by the constitutional combination of good and wise men.”While O’Connell may not have achieved that ambition during his own
lifetime, it was such an idealism that served to guide and influence, so
many years later, the achievement of the momentous Good Friday Agreement of 1998. That achievement was founded on the cornerstones of equality, justice and democratic partnership, and was a key milestone on the road to today’s warm, deep and enduring Irish-British friendship.Our two countries can take immense pride in the progress of the cause of peace in Northern Ireland. There is of course still a road to be travelled – the road of a lasting and creative reconciliation – and our two Governments have a shared responsibility to encourage and support those who need to complete the journey of making peace permanent and constructive.Mr Speaker, Lord Speaker:I stand here at a time when the relationship between our two islands has, as I have said, achieved a closeness and warmth that once seemed
unachievable. The people of Ireland greatly cherish the political
independence that was secured in 1922 – an independence which was fought for by my father and many of his generation. The pain and sacrifice associated with the advent of Irish independence inevitably cast its long shadow across our relations, causing us, in the words of the Irish MP Stephen Gwynn, to:

“look at each other with doubtful eyes.”

We acknowledge that 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. That benign reality was brought into sharp relief by the historic visit of Queen Elizabeth to Ireland three years ago. Her Majesty’s visit eloquently expressed how far we have come in understanding and respecting our differences, and it demonstrated that we could now look at each other through trusting eyes of mutual respect and shared commitments.

The ties between us are now strong and resolute. Formidable flows of trade and investment across the Irish Sea confer mutual benefit on our two countries. In tourism, sport and culture, our people to people connections have never been as close or abundant.

Generations of Irish emigrants have made their mark on the development of this country. As someone whose own siblings made their home here, I am very proud of the large Irish community that is represented in every walk of life in the United Kingdom. That community is the living heart in the evolving British-Irish relationship. I greatly cherish how the Irish in Britain have preserved and nurtured their culture and heritage while, at the same time, making a distinctive and valued contribution to the development of modern Britain.

Mr Speaker, Lord Speaker:

As both our islands enter periods of important centenaries we can and must, reflect on the ethical importance of respecting different, but deeply interwoven, narratives. Such reflection offers an opportunity to craft a bright future on the extensive common ground we share and, where we differ in matters of interpretation, to have respectful empathy for each other’s perspectives.

This year the United Kingdom commemorates the First World War. In Ireland too, we remember the large number of our countrymen who entered the battlefields of Europe, never to return home. Amongst those was the Irish nationalist MP Tom Kettle who wrote that:

“this tragedy of Europe may be and must be the prologue to the two
reconciliations of which all statesmen have dreamed, the
reconciliation of Protestant Ulster with Ireland, and the
reconciliation of Ireland with Great Britain.”

It is, I think, significant that Kettle refers to “this tragedy of Europe.”
We must always remember that this brutal and tragic war laid the hand of death on every country in Europe.

Kettle died as an Irish patriot, a British soldier and a true European. He understood that to be authentically Irish we must also embrace our European identity. It is an identification we proudly claim today, an identification we share with the United Kingdom, with whom we have sat around the negotiating table in Europe for over 40 years. We recognise that it has been in that European context of mutuality and interdependence that we took the most significant steps towards each other.

Mr Speaker, Lord Speaker:

I have been struck by the imposing canvases in this room, these depictions of the Battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo, painted by the Irishman Daniel Maclise. They call to mind another famous painting by this great artist that hangs in the National Gallery in Dublin. It depicts the 12th century marriage of Aoife, daughter of the King of Leinster, to Strongbow, the leader of the first Anglo-Norman force to arrive in Ireland. Those nuptials took place in the context of conflict and did not become a harbinger of harmony. Neither was there to be a marriage of hearts and minds between our two islands in the following centuries.

Today, however, 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 personal links that bind us together in cultural and social terms.

In the final days of his life, the soldier and parliamentarian Tom Kettle
dreamed of a new era of friendship between our two peoples – “Free, we are free to be your friend” – was how he put it in one of his poems.

The journey of our shared British-Irish relationship towards that freedom has progressed from the doubting eyes of estrangement to the trusting eyes of partnership and, in recent years, to the welcoming eyes of friendship.

I am conscious that I am in the company here of many distinguished
parliamentarians who have made their own individual contributions to the journey we have travelled together. I acknowledge them and I salute them, as I acknowledge and salute all those who have selflessly worked to build concord between our peoples. I celebrate our warm friendship and I look forward with confidence to a future in which that friendship can grow even more resolute and more productive.

Gur fada a ghabhfaidh pobail agus parlaimintí an dá oileán seo le chéile go síochánta, go séanmhar agus sa chairdeas buandlúite idir Éire agus an Bhreatain.

[Long may our two peoples and their parliaments walk together in peace, prosperity and ever closer friendship between Ireland and Britain.]

Thank you again for your kind welcome.

Read: 275 horses and an Irish Wolfhound named Domhnall welcome President to Windsor

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