Editorial: Visit will help to heal the wounds of history
The first state visit of an Irish President to Great Britain is an event charged with symbolism. It is charged with the expectation of finally normalising relations between our two countries. With the centenary of the 1916 Rising looming, at last we are emerging from the fog of a troubled history into what most people believe and hope is a new era of tolerance and understanding.
Modern history has tended to emphasise the political and religious differences and tensions between the two countries, rather than our shared language (the second official language of Ireland) and the cultural, sporting and many other links that have bound us together for good and ill since ancient times.
There is no denying that our shared past has been a troubled one. From the Famine to the IRA bombing campaign in Britain, the scars have run deep. But this is not the time for 'whataboutery' or reliving tragedies. History has judged the oppressor and the oppressed and it will continue to do so.
The fact that we are neighbours, separated only by a thin sliver of sea, should not obscure a fundamental truth that we are different and will always be different. But we also have a great deal in common. In 1900, the British monarch was cheered through the streets of Dublin and it is a sign of our own maturity that once again we could cheer a British monarch during the visit of Queen Elizabeth II, not as a ruler of Ireland or a symbol of empire, but as titular head of a friendly, neighbouring country.
That visit, and now the return visit of President Michael D Higgins, are aimed at recognising that while cultural differences are important to both peoples we can and should learn to appreciate the other's right to celebrate their own identity and heritage. So the queen could honour the Irish war dead in the Garden of Remembrance and Mr Higgins will be escorted to the Grand Stairs of Windsor Castle to see and acknowledge the colours of the disbanded Irish regiments of the British Army.
The transformed relationship permits us to acknowledge that the Irish fought for Britain, and this year, the centenary of the beginning of World War I, their families too will appreciate their contribution to this cause.
We can thank Britain for taking in the huddled masses of Irish people displaced by famine, poverty and some of the misguided isolationist policies of the new Irish State. They too left their mark on the landscape of their adopted country and the cultural landscape of cities like Liverpool, Glasgow, Manchester and London.
That the ordinary people of Ireland and Britain – and most of us have relatives somewhere over the water – have travelled freely, and mostly in peace, between the two countries is testament to the fact that officialdom is really only now catching up with the normal arrangements made by families and friends for generations.
There are all sorts of connections that probably do not really need to be restated: the British who come here as tourists, the Irish who fly over for football matches, the commerce between the two countries, the Irish broadcasters and comedians who have carved out celebrity status in Britain. These and many other connections show the healthy state of understanding between two peoples, a relationship that should be bolstered even further by the visit of Mr Higgins.
Of course, this is not the first visit by an Irish head of state to Britain. However, the visit of President Mary Robinson was not a state visit and was marred by the refusal of officialdom to address her simply as 'President of Ireland' for reasons of protocol directly connected to the status of the North.
Following the Good Friday Agreement and the removal of Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution, which claimed jurisdiction over Northern Ireland, no such obstacles exist today and so Mr Higgins will be addressed by the same title in England as he carries in Ireland. All this has happened because of men and women in Ireland, north and south, in Britain and in the United States of America, who believed in the 'peace process'; who believe in normal relations between two countries; who believed in peace, harmony and respect between two peoples.
It is not important to single anyone out today, just to note their contribution and to hope that our President will not only make this a historic and memorable occasion but one that will go a long way towards healing the wounds of history.