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.”

Arts and Entertainment
books
Voices
Caustic she may be, but Joan Rivers is a feminist hero, whether she likes it or not
voicesShe's an inspiration, whether she likes it or not, says Ellen E Jones
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Sport
Diego Costa
footballEverton 3 Chelsea 6: Diego Costa double has manager purring
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
Arts and Entertainment
The 'three chords and the truth gal' performing at the Cornbury Music Festival, Oxford, earlier this summer
music... so how did she become country music's hottest new star?
Life and Style
The spy mistress-general: A lecturer in nutritional therapy in her modern life, Heather Rosa favours a Byzantine look topped off with a squid and a schooner
fashionEurope's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln
News
Dr Alice Roberts in front of a
peopleAlice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Arts and Entertainment
Unsettling perspective: Iraq gave Turner a subject and a voice (stock photo)
booksBrian Turner's new book goes back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
News
The Digicub app, for young fans
advertisingNSPCC 'extremely concerned'
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Some of the key words and phrases to remember
booksA user's guide to weasel words
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, RSPSS, R, AI, CPLEX, SQL)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Law Costs

Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - This is a very unusual law c...

Junior VB.NET Application Developer (ASP.NET, SQL, Graduate)

£28000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior VB.NET ...

C# .NET Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, jQuery, XML, XLST)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...

Day In a Page

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution