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Tuesday 2 September 2014

We'll finally have a seat at the top table after this historic state visit

Henry Kelly

Published 07/04/2014 | 02:30

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The state visit of President Michael D Higgins to the UK is the next step in our relationship with our nearest neighbour following the visit of Queen Elizabeth to Ireland in 2011
The state visit of President Michael D Higgins to the UK is the next step in our relationship with our nearest neighbour following the visit of Queen Elizabeth to Ireland in 2011

THIS is all starting to get too much for me. First, Ireland play England at rugby in Croke Park. Croke Park, for crying out loud. Before kick-off, 80,000 people pay attention as the announcer asks us to stand for the national anthems.

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It was reckoned there were about 10,000 English supporters in the ground. There were thousands more belting out 'God Save the Queen'. Around me people, men and women, were in tears. My son was about two rows behind me but I couldn't look at him because we were both tear-stained.

Next, Her Majesty the Queen arrives in Ireland, jokes with a Cork fishmonger and addresses a state banquet in Dublin, beginning with cupla focal as Gaeilge.

Now, President Michael D Higgins is coming to Britain on the first-ever state visit, will stay at Windsor Castle and be guest of honour at a state banquet.

As he looks around the room, he will be able to see former IRA leader, Martin McGuinness, now Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. Am I dreaming? It appears not, and I've even given up starting with the words: "Did you ever think you'd live to see the day when..."

When, in the aftermath of serious trouble in Northern Ireland 40 years ago, the then British Government disbanded the B Specials and disarmed the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the journalist Nell McCafferty remarked to me in my office in Belfast that it was typical of the Brits to catch the Irish unawares.

She said: "This time they've changed the rules again. Instead of giving too little too late, the cute hoors have given too much too soon."

Now, here we are. Two sovereign states peacefully at ease at every level. This week, we will hear speeches of welcome, speeches of the long links and traditions that these two islands share.

They will be gracious, anecdotal and in part witty. Her Majesty does wit just as easily as Michael D. Politicians, churchmen and women, the great and good of the Irish in Britain will nod and agree how historic and important it all is. And they will be right.

One could easily be cynical about all this. But it matters because, with a following wind, it will do immense good for the Irish, not just in Britain but around the world.

In a totally unscientific, random poll I asked some friends, the first of them two ladies – both English, one of an Irish background – what the President's visit meant to them. The answer was it meant pretty much nothing but what they stressed was that the visit of Her Majesty to Ireland was hugely important, moving and a joy.

Another lady, Irish-born but who has lived in England for 30 years and is an amateur historian of great merit working on the Irish who came to Britain in the 19th century, put it into her own perspective. "I think it's the final acknowledgment of international respect.

"It says that the Irish are officially at the top table, not just of politics but state to state, not just for politicians. It's like a coming of age, in a way. In the past, our presidents have gone on state visits all over the world. England is now the last and, in many ways, the most important for us. I will be there outside Windsor Castle to welcome Michael D!"

I then asked an Irishman who has been in high-level business and commercial activity in Britain for 50 years what the President's visit meant to him. He said he didn't even know he was coming.

I have lived in London for nearly four decades. Both my children were born in the United Kingdom, my daughter in Belfast and my son in London.

They believe themselves at heart to be Irish, supporting Ireland first and foremost in all sports. If Ireland are out of a tournament they cheer for England, and neither can understand why the Scots, for example, want anyone but England to win even to the point of wanting Germany to beat England at football. Germany! Please!

I have never encountered any prejudice or even remote anti-Irish sentiment. Mild teasing, of course, but then you give as good as you get. We have an English pal who every now and then tries it on. A look or a "grow up" shuts him up pretty quickly.

What I hope will happen as a result of what begins tomorrow is that English people at every level will look upon us not just as decent boys and girls but as those entitled to eat at the top table.

In a way, the reaction of the friends I mentioned above is probably, on reflection, a good sign. Ireland's Presidential visit is nothing more and nothing less than any other presidential trip to India, say, or a Latin-American country or to an African head of state. The politics have been dealt with, the social interaction at every level now can, I believe, get under way.

Gestures matter. The wrong ones get footballers banned and politicians who shrug vilified. At state level, they send signals, not just to the shakers and movers but, with any luck on this occasion, this gesture will trickle down to the rest of us. It certainly has to me!

I will end by wishing His Excellency a great trip. I know, having known Michael D since university days, he will be brilliant: dignified, exemplary and play everything as it should be.

I have one personal note to add. When Queen Victoria came to Ireland in 1900, she was cheered in the centre of Dublin by huge crowds whom she addressed as "My loving people".

Standing in the throng was a 30-year-old woman who would live until the 1960s and eventually – with great reluctance – dying at the age of 96. She was my grandmother. She remembered the day she saw Victoria.

Were she alive today, she would sniff and say: "And about time too we all grew up".

Irish Independent

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