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Sunday 25 August 2019

Higgins charms Germany with his ode to EU solidarity

Absorbed: President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina view the Church of St Nicholas in Leipzig. Photo: Maxwell’s
Absorbed: President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina view the Church of St Nicholas in Leipzig. Photo: Maxwell’s

Nicola Anderson in Leipzig

The red carpet rolled out at his train in Berlin. Some 50 polizei escorting him wherever his cavalcade went - the ultimate honour, apparently.

Rapturous applause at Leipzig University for his keynote address that ran to no less than 14 pages.

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Not even the President of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, was immune to Michael D's charms.

At the state dinner the night before, he admitted it would be easy to be envious of his Irish counterpart's popularity as a leader, rattling off a few reasons - including his down-to-earth queuing for ATMs, as well as his enthusiasm for the Irish soccer team, that had guests chuckling in appreciation.

President Steinmeier even wistfully mentioned the tea cosies.

So to seal the deal on a successful state visit celebrating 90 years of diplomatic relations between Ireland and Germany, what could be better than a hoolie?

Last night, the Irish side returned the German hospitality with a concert by Other Voices, with artists including Lisa Hannigan and Dermot Kennedy, and with Aoife Ní Bhriain ending with a rendition of 'The Rolling Wave', which went down particularly well with President Steinmeier and his wife, Elke Budenbender.

It had been a bit of a rush job for President Higgins to get there.

Startlingly out of character, the train from Leipzig was delayed by 75 minutes and so the Irish delegation was forced to drive back to Berlin instead.

Still, the President took it all in his philosophical stride, privately remarking that the train service let-down was "good for those of us who are fallible".

He was in high spirits in any case, following the excellent reception of his lengthy speech, that was written long before British MEPs decided that turning their back on 'Ode To Joy' might look like a mature political move.

The gods of good timing were on side of 'Miggeldy' and he happened to heavily reference the fact Leipzig was where the poem by Freidrich Schiller was written - before being put to music by Beethoven.

"Every man becomes a brother, Where thy gentle wings abide," the President quoted, saying it reminded us of the guiding principle of the European Union which is solidarity between our nations and with others.

He described 'Ode to Joy' as "a call for rescue from tyrants, mercy to villains, and hope to the dying hours".

His speech was a clarion call for change in Europe - with an end to "hateful squabbles" and the building of a more just, more ecological-minded society.

And he warned that populist movements - like Brexit and the election of President Trump and the Yellow Vest movement - were a reaction to rising inequality, stagnant incomes and economic security, saying trust must be rebuilt in fractured societies.

There is a need for change in Europe "at a level which occurred in the late 1980s and early 1900s in central and Eastern Europe," he said.

On arriving at the University in Leipzig, he met with students of the Celtic Studies programme which is widely credited with helping to save the Irish language, with the printing of Irish text books in 1880, when the language was under great pressure at home.

He returns to Ireland tonight, after a visit to Wurzburg in Bavaria and a reception in Frankfurt.

Irish Independent

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