13th April 2014 Yerevan, Armenia

Two nations letting out a most heartfelt and longed for sigh of relief


We overuse the word ‘historic’, but this week in the UK something historic took place.  For the first time since the Republic of Ireland became independent over 90 years ago, and three years after the Queen’s groundbreaking first visit to Dublin, the President of Ireland came to the UK for a state visit, as a special guest of the Queen and Her Majesty’s government. 

Seen from 2014, it seems absolutely extraordinary that it should have taken this long to show this mark of respect to a country which is our closest neighbor, with whom we share more than 1000 years of history, which has been independent and democratic since 1922, and which has been a fellow member of the EU since 1973.

The reason, of course, was that our shared history was an often painful and tragic one of conquest and resistance, of division and alienation. Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s close to London, I remember the IRA bombing campaign on the UK mainland and the regular bomb alerts in shopping malls and the London underground; the newspaper headlines in the newspapers announcing the assassination of Lord Mountbatten, the uncle of the Queen’s husband in 1979; the controversy over the shooting of three members of the IRA in Gibraltar by British special forces in 1988; my father telling me of his visit to Belfast in 1968 before the most recent ‘Troubles’ began, and feeling the palpable discrimination and alienation between the Protestant majority and Catholic minority.   

But throughout this time the personal links between our countries never faltered.  I remember a magical holiday in Connemara, western Ireland, when I was 10.  My mother’s sister married an architect from Dublin shortly after, and I have three cousins, half English, half Irish.   At school, the Northern Irish Catholic poet Seamus Heaney – who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 – was one of my favourites. 

For people of my generation, the political breakthrough in 1998 was simply extraordinary – the Good Friday Agreement, which established a power-sharing executive in Belfast and was endorsed overwhelmingly in a vote by the people of both Ireland and Northern Ireland.  As the Queen memorably described during her own visit to Ireland in 2011, through this agreement ‘a knot of history…was painstakingly loosened by the British and Irish governments, together with the strength, vision and determination of the political parties in Northern Ireland’.   

The task we have been engaged in since – to ‘bow our heads to the past, but not to be bound by it’, in another memorable phrase from the Queen – is also described in the speeches given by Michael Higgins, the President of Ireland, on the first day of his visit.    I recommend reading both of them  in full (http://www.parliament.uk/business/news/2014/april/irish-president-visits-uk-parliament/ and http://www.president.ie/news/toast-by-president-higgins-at-state-banquet-windsor-castle/)

President Higgins is a poet as well as a politician, and his description of our shared history, how the ‘shadow’ of suspicion  has transformed into the mutual and supportive ‘shelter’ of friendship, is enormously moving in its clarity and humanity.  He reminds us that while we must celebrate what has been achieved, we must also constantly renew our commitment to a process of reconciliation that requires ‘vigilance and care’.  And he quotes the words of the Irish patriot and Nationalist MP Tom Kettle, who died – a British soldier – during the First World War.

 He did not live to see a free Ireland, but he dreamed of a time of reconciliation, using the words ‘Free, we are free to be your friend’. 


One of the journalists writing about the visit, and the warm and appreciative speeches of the Queen and the President to one another at Windsor Castle, commented on the extraordinary atmosphere of the occasion:  the feeling was of ‘two nations letting out a most heartfelt and longed-for sigh of relief’.  Relief, indeed.  After a very long journey, we are finally free to be friends. 

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