Wednesday 23 April 2014

Brian Murphy: President's historic UK trip the crowning glory after years of hard work

The news that President Michael D Higgins is to become the first Irish head of state to make an official state visit to Britain is the culmination of a long and sometimes difficult journey.

Though Sean T O'Kelly is probably best remembered for a colourful speech in which he boasted of "whipping John Bull," he was actually the first Irish President to seek to visit Britain.

This occurred in the immediate aftermath of Ireland formally becoming a republic on Easter Monday, 1949, following on from John A Costello's Ottawa declaration.

O'Kelly had been moved by King George VI sending an unexpected congratulatory message, which the Irish President described as "a generous act". Encouraged by the King's friendly gesture, O'Kelly put out feelers as to what the King's attitude might be to a visit from the Irish President.

O'Kelly used as an intermediary his friend Sir Shane Leslie, who was well connected with a number of British establishment figures. In June 1949, Leslie made contact with William Jowitt, the British lord chancellor and a member of Clement Attlee's cabinet.

Leslie wrote that O'Kelly intended to pass through London on his way to visit the Pope and wanted to do "the friendly and respectful thing and call on His Majesty".

On July 4, 1949, Jowitt informed Leslie that he had made "some discreet enquiries" and that O'Kelly "would most certainly be welcomed".

A copy of Jowitt's letter was passed on to O'Kelly, but the President had started to get cold feet. O'Kelly expressed concerns about what might happen if the King wished to return his courtesy call by visiting Ireland.

A royal visit in the late 1940s would have undoubtedly created huge political and security difficulties for the Irish government.

Reassurances were, however, swiftly provided by Sir Alan Lascelles, the King's private secretary, that George VI was happy to welcome O'Kelly to Buckingham Palace, with no expectation of a return visit to Dublin.

Lascelles wrote that: "The King gladly approves in principle the idea that the President of the Irish Republic should, on his way to Rome next winter, pay an official call on him. The King is strongly of the opinion that it would be quite out of order for him to return such a call by another head of state passing through London in the course of a journey elsewhere."

The prospect of a meeting between O'Kelly and George VI disappeared when Costello's government, in giving its consent to O'Kelly travelling to Rome, stipulated that en route the President could stop off in Paris and not in London, as had been the President's original intention.

When George VI died in February 1952, O'Kelly raised the prospect of his attendance at the King's funeral, but this did not meet with Eamon de Valera's approval. O'Kelly's secretary recorded that De Valera said: "The Taoiseach discussed this matter with the President on the occasion of his visit to the Aras on Friday the 8th instant. He said the view of the government was that having regard to the fact that a portion of Ireland is still forceably (sic) withheld from Irish control by the British government, it was better that the President should not attend."

Before he retired, O'Kelly did manage to achieve one significant footnote in Anglo-Irish relations. On his journey back from the United States in 1959, the President's liner docked in Plymouth before he transferred to Exeter Airport to complete his journey home.

O'Kelly was welcomed by Baron Roborough, the lord lieutenant of Devon and "Queen Elizabeth's personal representative in that county". The President asked that his gratitude be passed on to "her majesty".

This was the first time that an Irish President was officially acknowledged on British soil. The occasion was not without drama because an anonymous phone call was made to Devon police threatening the safety of the President. O'Kelly was whisked away to the airport where police officers "stood guard over the plane from the moment of its arrival until its departure with the President and his party".

On August 27, 1974, the first meeting between an Irish President and British royalty occurred at a painting exhibition in Summerhill College, Sligo, when President Erskine Childers greeted Earl Mountbatten.

In 1981, there was some controversy when President Patrick Hillery, acting on the advice of Charles Haughey's government, did not accept the Queen's invitation to attend the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana.

In May 1993, President Mary Robinson became the first serving Irish President to actually meet the British sovereign when she made a courtesy call to Buckingham Palace. British officials sought not to use the title 'President of Ireland' in the surrounding protocols to this event.

Robinson recalled: "I remember there was even a controversy about what I would be called. The British did not want to use President of Ireland so there were various versions (such as) President Mary Robinson of Ireland."

Up until the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the British government did not recognise the title 'President of Ireland,' in case this might be construed as an acceptance that the President was head of state in Northern Ireland.

The first state visit by the President of Ireland to Britain is a further indication of the normalisation in relations between our two islands.

Brian Murphy has recently submitted his PhD thesis at the School of History and Archives, UCD.

Irish Independent

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