THE STATE VISIT of Uachtaran na hEireann, Michael D Higgins to Britain is both historic and significant.
It is welcome in the context of building new relationships within Ireland and between these islands and follows on from the visit of Queen Elizabeth to Dublin, Cork and Tipperary in 2011 and Belfast in 2012.
It must be viewed against the backdrop of the huge political changes that have taken place in recent years – changes in which Irish republicans have played a leadership role.
Some have tended to view these visits through the prism of normalising relationships between the 26 County State and Britain. But this is too shortsighted and narrow.
A much wider perspective is needed if we really are to bring about the type of historic changes that are possible now and in the time ahead.
Commentators employing a lazy analysis have also portrayed these events as proof that the issue of British involvement in Irish affairs has been settled. It hasn’t.
The Partition of Ireland remains unjust, illegitimate and makes no political or economic sense. Others have a different view. But the important thing is that these different perspectives can now be debated and contested openly and democratically.
So the debate should not be limited, reduced or restricted by a Southern or indeed a Northern perspective.
Rise above partitionism
We must all rise above partitionism if we are to manage a process of replacing division by the unity of the people of the island whatever form they wish this to democratically take.
This means defining an entirely new relationship between Britain and Ireland. It means re-imagining a new dispensation in which, as Seamus Heaney says, “a crippled trust might walk”. This clearly means all of Ireland, not just the Southern state.
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement — the most significant political development on this island since partition, represented an historic compromise between the objectives of those seeking a united Ireland and those wishing to maintain the union. It opened a peaceful, democratic route to Irish unity, ending violent conflict.
As well as introducing an all-Ireland political architecture, the Agreement replaced the Government of Ireland Act with a commitment to legislate for Irish unity if that is the expressed wish of a majority of voters in the North.
In that context I believe a ‘Border Poll’ or referendum on Irish unity threatens nobody and gives all citizens their say on the future.
While the constitutional position of the North is clearly contested ground, I believe that all identities must be respected on the basis of equality as we continue to transform society.
As a united Irelander I believe that we need to construct a new dispensation in Ireland, which accommodates those people who define themselves as British. It was in this context that Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness met and shook hands with Queen Elizabeth in Belfast last year.
During her visit in 2011, I welcomed what I believed to be Queen Elizabeth’s genuine expression of sincere sympathy for those who suffered as a result of British involvement in Irish affairs. I also said she had made a number of important symbolic gestures, including the laying of a wreath in the Garden of Remembrance.
Many Irish citizens have been hurt by the consequences of British rule in Ireland, not least over the past 40 years. Many are still denied justice.
The publication of Ann Cadwallader’s ‘Lethal Allies’ and the broadcast of BBC’s Panorama programme about the activities British army undercover units have in recent weeks brought the injustice of British rule in Ireland into sharp focus once again.
Meanwhile the British state refuses to disclose official documentation that would throw light on its involvement in the Dublin-Monaghan bombings which witnessed the greatest single loss if life of any incident in the conflict.
What is clear is that the dirty war prosecuted in Ireland by the British state was neither in the interests of the people of Britain or of Ireland.
While republicans fought against the British Government and its armed forces, they were never at war with the British people. However, the fact remains that people in England and in Ireland were hurt and killed by IRA actions.
Addressing all of these legacy issues must be an integral part of any process aimed at bringing about a genuine normalisation of relationships between Ireland and Britain.
We need to deal comprehensively with the issue of the past so that the tangled history that these two islands share cannot be allowed to be an obstacle to building a better relationship into the future.
The real significance and value of President Higgins’s visit will only be realised if it is built upon by both Governments.
The British Government — even a benign British government, always tries to act in what it perceives to be its national interest. The Irish Government must do likewise.That means ending any benign Partitionist tendencies by the policy makers.
The fact is remarkable work has been done in the North and there is huge potential, notwithstanding current difficulties, to do more in a fraternal and positive way.
That means implementing all outstanding elements of the Good Friday and other Agreements.
Of course it is good development that our President, on our behalf, will be officially welcomed by the head of the British state but we need peace and harmony on our streets, particularly in the North as well as in the palaces and the big houses.
I am sure President Higgins and his wife Sabina will do us proud. The government must do likewise by diplomatic, focused persistence that all Agreements made are honoured.
This is the way to chart a new, deeply ingrained, embedded, positive and harmonious relationship between Ireland – all of Ireland – and Britain based on equality and mutual respect for the first time in our troubled history.
Gerry Adams is a TD for Louth and Sinn Féin President