Setting off on his historic trip to England, President Michael D. Higgins declared “Ireland and Britain must deal with the pain of the past and must not be crippled by it,” setting a forward-looking tone for the first-ever state visit to Britain by an Irish president.
The President and his wife, Sabina, were joined by Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore and his wife, Carol Hanney. Arriving at Heathrow Airport on Monday night, they were greeted by a Guard of Honor, the Irish Ambassador to England Dan Mulhall, and the Viscount Henry Hood, who represented the Queen.
As the Irish delegation arrived, the British Monarchy Twitter account issued a welcome in Irish. The President’s party departed Heathrow in a maroon Bentley waving the Irish tricolor flag. Later, the monarchy Twitter feed announced that “850 British Army Personnel, 275 horses and one Irish wolfhound named Domhnall” would be taking part in Tuesday’s state visit.
Tuesday morning began bright and early for President Higgins as the delegation made its way to Windsor. Windsor Castle is the Queen’s preferred royal residence, and it has been regarded as a particular honor that President Higgins and Sabina have been invited there rather than Buckingham Palace, where heads of state typically stay when visiting.
At the Irish Embassy in London, the presidential couple greeted staff and were met by Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. From there, it was all pomp and circumstance as they traveled by motorcade to the outskirts of Windsor. As custom dictates, President Higgins and Prince Charles traveled in one car; Sabina and Camilla in another. They were met by the Queen and Prince Philip at Windsor and saluted by the Mounted Band of the Lifeguards, who played both “The Royal Salute” and “Amhrán na bhFiann.”
The royal and presidential couples completed the last leg of the journey to Windsor Castle in horse-drawn carriages – The Queen and President Higgins in one, followed by Prince Philip and Sabina in another.
Arriving at Windsor Castle, President Higgins inspected the Honor Guard and was introduced to the mascot of the Irish Guards, Domhnall the Irish Wolfhound. The Irish Guards are currently stationed in Cyprus.
Inside the castle the royal and presidential couples attended a private lunch before the Queen showed the President a number of the Irish items from the Royal Collection, including a fan made of delicate lace from Youghal, Co Cork below.
Next the President and Sabina traveled to Westminster. In Westminster Abbey, Higgins laid a wreath upon the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, his bowed head calling to mind that of the Queen’s during her historic visit to the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin three years ago.
Up next was Westminster Palace and the Houses of Parliament, assembled to hear an address by President Higgins. The President was introduced by the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow.
Marking the first time an Irish Head of State has addressed the British Parliament, Higgins thanked “all those who have selflessly worked to build concord between our peoples.” His speech also touched upon landmark moments in Irish-British history, Northern Ireland, the Queen’s 2011 visit to Dublin, the Irish immigrant community in England, and the long journey the two countries have shared.
“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,” President Higgins concluded. Hear his remarks below.
On his way out of the Houses of Parliament, President Higgins took a moment to pause at the memorial to Lord Mountbatten, who was killed in 1979 by an IRA bomb planted on his fishing boat.
The motorcade then returned to Windsor Castle, where preparations for the banquet in St. George’s Hall were in full swing. The guest list consisted of 160 attendees, including Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Enda Kenny, British Prime Minister David Cameron, former President of Ireland Mary McAleese, and Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.
You really wouldn't want to see me in the penguin suit, so here's a peek at my cuff links for tonight !! pic.twitter.com/Ca95YVOewO— Martin McGuinness (@M_McGuinness_SF) April 8, 2014
Though a small group protesting McGuinness’ attendance gathered outside, the Deputy First Minister was focused on the evening ahead.
The Queen and President Higgins each gave remarks. Speaking first, the Queen reflected on the history being made as well as the banquet’s historic setting. “The Castle was founded by William the Conqueror almost a thousand years ago. And a thousand years ago this very month, across the Irish Sea, Brian Boru, the most celebrated of Ireland’s High Kings, lost his life at the battle of Clontarf. Yet, despite ten centuries of intervening history, Windsor Castle has had to wait until today to see a formal visit to this country by a Head of State of Ireland.”
She reflected fondly on the visit she and Prince Philip made to Ireland in 2011, but noted that “even more pleasing, since then, is that we, the Irish and British, are becoming good and dependable neighbors and better friends; finally shedding our inhibitions about seeing the best in each other.
“Our two governments have responded to the change in mood. We now cooperate across the full range of public business; indeed, there is today no closer working relationship for my Government than that with Ireland.” Read the Queen’s full address here.
President Higgins thanked the Queen for the warm welcome shown to him, Sabina and their delegation. “That welcome is very deeply felt and appreciated by me, and by the people of Ireland, whom I represent. However long it may have taken, Your Majesty, I can assure you that this first State Visit of a President of Ireland to the United Kingdom is a very visible sign of the warmth and maturity of the relationship between our two countries. It is something to be truly welcomed and celebrated.”
Touching upon the double meaning of the Irish word scáth as both “shadow” and “shelter,” he said “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 neighbors and, most especially, from the contribution of those who have traveled between our islands in recent decades.”
Praising the Queen for the doors opened by her historic visit to Ireland, he said, “Admirably, you chose not to shy away from the shadows of the past, recognizing that they cannot be ignored when we consider the relationship between our islands. We valued your apt and considered words when you addressed some of the painful moments of our mutual history, and we were moved by your gestures of respect at sites of national historical significance in Ireland.
"These memorable moments and these moving words merit our appreciation and, even more, our reciprocity. While the past must be respectfully recognized, it must not imperil the potential of the present or the possibilities of the future – ar féidireachtaí gan teorainn – our endless possibilities working together.”
The President thanked all those – in attendance and elsewhere – who worked so hard towards peace in Northern Ireland, while also emphasizing that all those who were lost on both sides will not be forgotten. “We must, however, never forget those who died, were bereaved, or injured, during a tragic conflict. As the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur wrote, to be forgotten is to die twice. We owe a duty to all those who lost their lives, the duty to build together in peace; it is the only restitution, the only enduring justice we can offer them.
“We share, also, the imperative to be unwavering in our support of the people of Northern Ireland as we journey together towards the shelter and security of true reconciliation. We celebrate what has been achieved but we must also constantly renew our commitment to a process that requires vigilance and care.”
He concluded with a toast:
“To the health and happiness of Her Majesty and His Royal Highness, and the people of the United Kingdom;
“To a creative cooperation and a sustainable partnership between our countries and our peoples; and
“To valued neighbors whose friendship we truly cherish.
“Go raibh maith agaibh go léir.”
To read President Higgins’ full remarks click here.