Saturday 16 December 2017

Whole new ball game: Michael D is backing England in World Cup

President and Sabina Higgins were greeted by Lord Mayor of the City Of London Fiona Woolf and her husband Nicholas Woolf at the Guildhall Banquet in London. Picture: JOHNNY BAMBURY/ FENNELL PHOTOGRAPHY
President and Sabina Higgins were greeted by Lord Mayor of the City Of London Fiona Woolf and her husband Nicholas Woolf at the Guildhall Banquet in London. Picture: JOHNNY BAMBURY/ FENNELL PHOTOGRAPHY
Kevin Moran and Barry McGuigan at the Guildhall Banquet for President Higgins in London

Lise Hand, London

THE world has turned upside down, and no mistake. One night, former IRA commander Martin McGuinness is toasting the queen in Windsor Castle; and the next the Irish President is announcing that he will be cheering on England in the World Cup this summer.

He declared his intentions during a speech in the salubrious surrounds of the Great Hall of London's Guildhall at a gala dinner hosted by the Lord Mayor of London, Fiona Woolf (Boris Johnson is the London Mayor, a different kettle of gold chain altogether).

The President, a staunch Galway United supporter, declared: "As a follower of the beautiful game, I look ahead two months to Brazil and say that if Ireland cannot be at the World Cup Finals, then I will raise a glass to England to go all the way." He remarked that this gesture "might seem transformational".

You're right there, Michael D. It might be a tough sell back home though, where the ritual of rooting for every team in any sport that comes up against England is as Irish as moaning about the weather.

The Guildhall may not be as splendid as the other two palaces that the President has been in over the last 48 hours, but it was pretty darn close.

At 7.30pm the President and Sabina arrived in the beautiful dark brown Bentley with the royal crest on the side and a small Tricolour flying from the roof.

Waiting to greet them in full ceremonial robes was Alderman Fiona Woolfe and the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, and the quartet stood to attention before the military band played 'Amhran na bhFiann'.

And once more Sabina Higgins looked stunning. A lot of thought had gone into this particular dress; it was the idea of award-winning costume designer Joan Bergin, as a response to the white shamrock-decorated gown worn by the queen at the state banquet in Dublin in 2011. Sabina's full-length gown was in the style of an English evening dress with a soft Tudor Rose emblem created Jill Howard, accessorised by 18th Century pearls with matching ear-rings which are on loan from top Dublin jewellers, John Farrington.

Once again, the boat had been pushed out in fine style by the President's English hosts. Fanfares greeted the President's arrival and around 700 guests crowded into the impressive hall, including the North's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, former Taoiseach John Bruton, broadcaster Terry Wogan and his wife Helen, Dublin Lord Mayor Oisin Quinn, former champion boxer Barry McGuigan, former footballer Kevin Moran and fashion designer Orla Kiely.

The speeches began afterwards, and before he got onto sporting matters, the President had some serious things to say about the recession back home, thanking the British for their financial support during the toughest of times.

"But it is the ordinary people of Ireland, and generations yet to come, who have borne and continue to bear the cost of the painful decisions that have been taken," he said. "As Seamus Heaney reminded us last year, not long before his passing: 'we are not simply a credit rating or an economy but a history and a culture, a human population rather than a statistical phenomenon".

Then President Higgins declared for England. What a gobsmacking statement. Perhaps in years to come it will be known as the Guildhall Declaration.

Mind, if Martin McGuinness turns up in June waving a Union Flag and singing "Three Lions on a Shirt", the world hasn't just turned upside down – we're in a parallel universe altogether.

Irish Independent

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