Saturday 27 December 2014

Ruth Dudley Edwards: Pushing the royal barge out to welcome our President

Queen eager to play host after her historic visit here and continue to bond with closest neighbour, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

Published 24/11/2013 | 01:00

ALL SMILES: Queen Elizabeth chats with President Higgins at Belfast's Lyric Theatre
ALL SMILES: Queen Elizabeth chats with President Higgins at Belfast's Lyric Theatre

THE State visit of President and Mrs Michael D Higgins in April 2014 will be the 108th of Queen Elizabeth's reign.

The first two – from the king and queen of Sweden and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia – happened in 1954, the year after her coronation, when she was 29. King Gustaf VI Adolf, who was 67 – two years older than Prince Charles is now – when he inherited the throne in 1950, reigned until he died in 1973 at the age of 90. The emperor was ousted in 1974 by Soviet-backed military conspirators and died in captivity the following year at the age of 83.

No invitation is issued until it is absolutely clear that it will be accepted. Along the way, the Queen has entertained – always at the request of her governments – the good, the bad and the ugly. She has smiled and welcomed heads of state and spouses of both genders and many races, creeds and colours. Young and old, they have included saints and scoundrels, constitutional and absolute monarchs, tyrants and democrats and a pope. She will have been as punctilious in dealing with President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe as with President Nelson Mandela of South Africa. Many of her guests will later have expired in their beds: others, like President and Madame Ceausescu of Romania will have died violently.

The two most recent visitors, both this year, were Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, president of the United Arab Emirates, and President Park Geun-hye of South Korea. Both were commercially and strategically important but caused no stir. The Queen is a pro, but she is human, and the visit of the Irish President and his wife Sabina must seem a great deal more attractive to her than many of those she's had to endure.

The choreography that has taken Anglo-Irish relations to this happy stage has been elaborate. Diplomats worked patiently behind the scenes for years to produce such landmark events as President Mary Robinson's tea with the Queen in Buckingham Palace in 1993; Prince Charles's official visit to Ireland in 1995 (which included a banquet in Dublin Castle); the unveiling by the Queen, President Mary McAleese and King Albert II of Belgium of the tower memorial in Messines, in Flanders, in 1998; and Charles's visit to the Irish Embassy in London in 2010. Then, in May 2011, there was the wildly successful first State visit here by a British monarch since independence.

For the Queen – for whom it had been a real sadness that she had never been able to visit her country's nearest neighbour – the four days were a joy. Normally, it would have been several years before the invitation was returned, but London and Dublin were both equally anxious to speed things up. Quite apart from wishing to strike while the diplomatic iron is hot, Queen Elizabeth is 87 and Prince Philip is 92 and if they – as they wish – are to be hosts, procrastination is to be discouraged.

That the visit is regarded as highly significant for both governments is evident not only in its timing, but in the decision to ask their guests to stay at Windsor Castle, which is seen as a mark of special favour reserved for the few. There will be all the usual ceremony the British do so elaborately and well, along with a state banquet and probably a city business banquet and something at Number 10 Downing Street.

If, as it is rumoured, the President is being asked to address the Houses of Commons and Lords, this will be regarded as an enormous honour. The royal barge is indeed being pushed out.

All this shows, as British Ambassador to Ireland Dominick Chilcott said, "the determination of the two countries and the two governments to heal the wounds of the past, and make the most of all that we've got in common and the deepening of the relationship we have now".

Does the average man in the British street care? Not much. State visits and carriage processions come and go without often attracting much interest.

But as well as its importance for business, tourism and diplomacy, the visit will matter a great deal to the millions of people with Irish connections who live happily in the United Kingdom and have longed for a normal relationship between the two countries they love. And yes, I'm including myself.

The other good news for the heads of state is that the President is interested in horse racing and the Queen likes poetry. President Higgins is a regular at the Galway Races; the other night – with evident enjoyment – the Queen and Prince Philip hosted the first Reception for Contemporary British Poetry.

The omens are excellent. We must just hope there isn't a coup in either country between now and next April.

@RuthDE

Sunday Independent

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