God save the Queen, and us!


In case you missed it, Michael D. Higgins is on a four day visit to Britain at the invitation of the Queen, the first state visit there ever by an Irish president.  And the Irish media, even before he had left for London on the government jet on Monday afternoon, were overcome with the excitement and "historical significance" of it all.   

The plain people of Ireland, however, are far less impressed by all the hype about the visit. Judged by the reaction on newspaper websites and Twitter, they regard the whole thing as slightly comical and completely irrelevant to where we are at these days.

"God save the Queen – she doesn't deserve this," said one message writer, no doubt thinking of the tortuous waffle Michael D. will be inflicting on his host.  

"A self-serving, self-regarding exercise in hubris and pomposity,” said another.

"What a waste of taxpayers' money – couldn't he have gone Ryanair?” asked another.  

"Will be avoiding the TV like the black death for the next 10 days – this s*** is truly nauseating in this day and age," said another. 

Avoiding the TV seemed like good advice. In case us ordinary folk might not grasp the importance of what was happening, RTE began the build-up before Higgins had even left on Monday afternoon.  This included coverage of his departure from the Aras (his official residence) where he was seen off by a guard of honor and military band, followed by coverage of his departure speech at the airport, heavy with the significance and symbolism of what he was embarking on.  

There was also a special interview for the six o'clock news on RTE.  And all that before he had even left the country! 

The arrival of the government jet at London City Airport and the "official welcome" was also covered on the RTE news.  But neither the BBC nor Sky News included it in their six o'clock news on Monday, showing that the arrival of the Irish president in Britain was way down the news list as far as they were concerned.

The different perspective was interesting.  And far from being insulting, it was probably a better reflection of how a lot of Irish people feel.

The fact is that around a million Irish born people live in Britain and some of them have been there for decades. They have worked there, married there, raised children there and made lives there that were impossible "at home" in Ireland.  

So they don't need a lot of speeches and symbolic gestures to tell them about the special relationship that exists between the two islands.  They've been living it for years.   

They are also aware of the difficulties there have been. They've got through the uneasy times during The Troubles when the IRA was bombing British cities.  

They know that even then the British kept the doors open and gave us free access when it would have been very easy for them to introduce restrictions. So in a very practical way they understand that there is a "special relationship" between us.  

The same applies, of course, to the people here at home, because with a million Irish in Britain there is not a family in Ireland that does not have connections there.  To repeat, some of these connections go back decades.  And we really don't need a state visit to Britain by the President to validate or give expression to these connections.

That said, a formal state visit to Britain by an Irish president is a welcome development and it's long overdue. But it should be seen simply as a celebration of the positive ties between us rather than weighing it down with emotive blather about symbolism and great historical significance.

The visit is, of course, a thank-you from the Queen who was very impressed and moved by the warmth of the reception she got on her visit to Ireland three years ago. It's not surprising that she wanted to pull out all the stops to make this a state visit to remember.  

So on Tuesday, all the pomp and ceremony that the Brits do so well was on display, with hundreds of horses and soldiers in scarlet uniforms, gun salutes, bands and carriages used for the visit to Windsor Castle where Higgins and his wife were staying as guests of the Queen, a privilege afforded to only the most important visitors to Britain.  

Full details of the visit are on RTE and the BBC websites, Irish Central and Irish newspaper websites.   The coverage of the visit by British TV news increased on Tuesday, particularly of the ceremonies at Windsor Castle and Michael D's address to the houses of Parliament at Westminster later in the afternoon.   

The address to Parliament was the most important speech of the president's visit.  But it did not really say much, other than that we have come a long way from "the pain and sacrifice associated with the advent of Irish independence" which he said had "inevitably cast a long shadow across relations between the two countries."

Paying tribute to the Queen for her visit here, Higgins said that "the ties between us are now strong and resolute."  He also talked about all the Irish who had emigrated to Britain over the years, including his own sisters.