News Analysis

Tuesday 2 September 2014

We've all come such a long way – now it's Sinn Fein's duty to apologise for the hurt

James Downey

Published 09/04/2014 | 02:30

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President Michael D Higgins addressed both Houses of Parliament in the Royal Gallery at The Palace of Westminster on the first day of the President's State Visit to the United Kingdom. Picture: Johnny Bambury/ Fennell Photography
President Michael D Higgins addressed both Houses of Parliament in the Royal Gallery at The Palace of Westminster on the first day of the President's State Visit to the United Kingdom. Picture: Johnny Bambury/ Fennell Photography
Queen Elizabeth and President Higgins at Windsor Castle. Photo: Justin Tallis.

MICHAEL D Higgins's address to the joint Houses of the Westminster Parliament yesterday was a little gem.

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The President speaks to all his audiences as if they are on his own intellectual level. He challenges their ability to ponder and understand the seemingly unrelated events and personalities which he links together.

And he pays them neat little compliments disguised as history.

Yesterday, he began with Magna Carta – in English, the Great Charter of the Liberties of England, which was forced out of King John by the feudal barons in 1215. The British are immensely and rightly proud of Magna Carta.

They know it has been dishonoured or ignored countless times through the centuries but that is common in all human affairs. The Charter survived, to influence English law, the American Revolution and, to varying extents, the principles of right and justice governing free societies.

From there, the President made two leaps: first to Daniel O'Connell, then to Tom Kettle. The second was particularly apt in this year, the centenary of the mass slaughter which began in 1914.

Kettle was one of the most admired figures in the nationalist movement. He seemed destined to occupy high office in an independent state. But he was killed in the Great War. The country and the world lost his talents, along with those of many other distinguished persons and of millions unknown.

President Higgins did not dwell on the colossal scale of these tragedies. He did not need to.

Everybody in the audience knew the history and the arguments. Did Britain have no choice but to go to war? Did the huge numbers of Irishmen who joined the British forces make the right decision?

These questions will be teased out again and again this year. For now, the Higgins visit is not about history but celebration. It celebrates the sea change which has brought Anglo-Irish relations to their happiest condition ever.

This happy condition is inseparable from the contributions of three women: President Mary McAleese, President Mary Robinson and Queen Elizabeth II.

One of them remains in the foreground. Queen Elizabeth is the President's host this week. Her Irish visit three years ago was free of stuffiness and formality.

Instead, it was a unique demonstration of friendship and enjoyment. And it is impossible to separate it from the reciprocal visit by the President to the United Kingdom.

Queen Elizabeth, not entirely alone, but to a far greater extent than any other individual, has made her own sea change, a sea change in the British monarchy.

Under the present dynasty, the monarchy has often been massively unpopular. Sometimes, it has been in danger of being overthrown. At the time of Princess Diana's death, some wondered if it could survive.

That is now almost forgotten. Queen Elizabeth has brought it more than popularity. She has brought it respect and stability. And she has done so in what might have appeared a dismaying context.

Her ancestors in recent centuries, down to the reign of her father, King George VI, may not have wielded much personal authority, but they reigned over a world power. That status ended in 1918. She has been obliged, and her immediate successors will be obliged, to assert a place for a powerless monarch in a country which has not yet come fully to terms with its present role in the world.

She has succeeded, in part, by showing her people glimpses of her own emotions, from the pain she suffered from her family's troubles to her enjoyment of her favourite sport, racing.

One might not expect Michael D Higgins, intellectual and poet, to share her love of racing. But he is, all said and done, an Irishman. When asked what gift he would offer Queen Elizabeth, he said: "Something of an equine nature." He has a sense of humour.

But behind the pomp and pageantry, state visits provide an opportunity for serious business. President Higgins this week mentioned one subject of shared and grave concern, not as part of the celebrations but on a BBC television programme.

He said that all who had inflicted violence during the northern Troubles should apologise.

The time is more than ripe for Sinn Fein to respond. The sea change in Anglo-Irish relations has not been replicated in Northern Ireland. A worthy peace process calls for more than words. It calls for magnanimity and for the humility that the President has demanded.

Irish Independent

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