Royal treatment is no more than we deserve
It was once said of Michael D Higgins that he would "go mad in government". As it happened, he didn't, as an Arts Minister. But our diminutive President may well go mad with pleasure next month when he is taken by horse-drawn carriage to Windsor Castle as part of his UK visit. His itinerary has been released for the first official state visit there by an Irish head of state and there is no doubt that he, and by extension we, are truly getting the Royal treatment.
Visits to Westminster Abbey and Stratford-Upon-Avon, an address to the joint Houses of Commons and Lords, a state banquet hosted by the Queen, a lord mayor's banquet and courtesy calls from all the political leaders. Our President's head will be spinning. There will also be engagements with other royals such as Prince Charles, and Prince Andrew, who will show the President the old colours of the Irish regiments of the British Army, now disbanded.
The latter is an imaginative and clever gesture: a reminder that although the British may have done horrid things to the Irish in military terms over the centuries, we also provided some of the best fighting men for the British Army, and indeed, along with the hardy Scots, we were the backbone of the Imperial army in the mid-19th Century. And this is the odd thing about the visit: relations between the two countries have never been closer. We have a common travel area, a peaceful Northern Ireland and enhanced trade and cultural ties. And yet here is our President – in 2014 – visiting the UK like he's the Crown Prince of Thailand, flying in from a faraway place, as opposed to popping across the water.
But this is the very point, which the British want to emphasise. This is the long overdue respect that hasn't been there over the decades. This is catch-up time, and the British are going to push the boat out for us. The Queen has been intimately involved in picking the schedule, just as she was for her own visit to Ireland two years ago. With her advancing years, she has been anxious to finally normalise and celebrate the close ties and shared experience of the two islands.
That's why she went to the Garden of Remembrance to lay a wreath to the Republican dead and it is why our own Government has invited a royal family representative to attend the 1916 centenary commemorations in three years' time. And it is also why our own hardliners, opposed to such an invite, should wake up and welcome the gesture, for it is the long overdue respect of a former adversary for a seismic Irish event.
The itinerary shows just how well the British do pageantry and ceremony, and continue to project the notion that London is the centre of the world, even if the Empire has long faded. Indeed, there is currently in the UK, a harking back to such old values and symbolism and a growing resistance to multiculturalism, the EU and immigration.
It is interesting to see, for example – and just a bit curious – that President Higgins's last engagement will be to see the ruins of Coventry cathedral, bombed by the Germans during World War II. We were famously neutral in that war, and Europe is trying to move on from the memory of it, but the British are currently in a nostalgic and defiant mood.
But maybe they are entitled to their defiance, with their strong economy, outside the euro. And are we any less delusional and self-preoccupied with our own visitors? We can do excellent hospitality too, but whereas theirs is ancient ritual, ours is intimate and folksy, but maybe a bit too much so, sticking a pint of Guinness in front of the Queen and bombarding the US President with rousing renditions of 'The Galway Girl'. Not that the visit doesn't also involve the practicalities of close relations, such as in science, food promotion and Irish fashion and design.
Certainly, the visit will be a major piece of theatre for our President, who only this week was rather endearingly pictured queuing to use an ATM, while his driver waited.
Indeed, Michael D has turned out to be an ideal President for this sort of ritual. He may be a settled firebrand from Galway, but he also loves the pomp and pageantry and can rise to it all in way that few Irish politicians can. He has that French touch of the 'imperious Socialist' and, most importantly, he will not let us down. Indeed, trotting along in his horse carriage towards Windsor Castle, he will assuredly feel that this is no more that both he, and the Irish people, deserve.