Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Michael D Higgins rises to a mighty historical occasion


Short, even shorter than Speaker John Bercow who introduced him in the Lords’ Royal Gallery, the politician, poet, academic and head of state, Michael D Higgins seemed curiously undaunted by the enormity of the moment as he began to speak in his high, precise voice.

Before he spoke, the symbolic resonance was almost too rich to absorb. He had paused with his wife at the Westminster Abbey memorial to Viscount Mountbatten, killed by the IRA in Sligo in 1979, an act that handsomely acknowledged the personal element in the Queen’s own reconciliatory approach to Anglo-Irish relations, not least the welcome at Windsor Castle tonight for Martin McGuinness.

Waiting for him was a packed audience of the British establishment of course, but one also so diverse that it ranged from Lord (Robert) Armstrong, Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet Secretary during the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement talks, to three of the five Sinn Fein MPs who never sit in the Commons: Pat Doherty, Michelle Gildernew and Paul Maskey.

Tonight, when President Higgins invited guests at the banquet in Windsor to stand and join him in a toast to the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and the people of the UK, Mr McGuinness stood up and participated in the toast as the orchestra played “God Save The Queen”.

But the whole day was studded with images imbued with historic symbolism to reinforce the historic nature of the first state visit of an Irish president. The Queen’s orchid brooch in Waterford crystal; the admiration with which both heads of state examined a Youghal lace fan from the royal collection; the formal inspection of the Grenadier Guards.

Could the President live up to all this in his big speech? The answer, it turned out, was yes. It was skilfully interspersed  with relevant references: cultural, historical, literary. Because the Royal Gallery is lined with huge paintings by the artist Daniel Maclise, Higgins referred to another by the same artist in the National Gallery in Dublin, one portraying the marriage of the Duke of Leinster’s daughter to the Norman leader Strongbow – a totemic moment commemorating the Anglo-Norman invasion which began Ireland’s seven-and-a-half century loss of freedom. Now, he said, there was a “fresh canvas” on which to advance “our shared hopes” based on “mutual respect, shared benefit, and the deep and indelible personal links that bind us together.”

But the most moving passage invoked the First World War and the “large number of our countrymen who went to the battlefields of Europe.” He singled out Tom Kettle, a great Irish nationalist – and Westminster MP – who was killed when fighting with the British Army. “Kettle died as an Irish patriot, a British soldier and a true European”, Mr Higgins said. Kettle would later write of his dream for relations between Britain and Ireland: “Free, we are free to be your friend.”

Higgins quoted Kettle’s  vision “that this tragedy of Europe may be and must be the prologue to the two reconciliations of which all statesmen have dreamed, the reconciliation of Protestant Ulster with Ireland, and the reconciliation of Ireland with Great Britain”.

For an Irish audience, the poignant reference to Kettle helps to revive the memory of the 200,000 Irishmen who fought in the Great War. To an audience in Britain, it is a reminder of the sacrifice made by the 50,000 of those Irishmen killed in that war. Above all that, as Higgins repeated, was the message: “Free, we are free to be your friend.”