When Queen Elizabeth arrived in Ireland in 2011 it was the first state visit to the country by a British monarch since before Irish independence in 1922. Now in 2014 Irish President Michael D. Higgins has concluded the first state visit by an Irish President to Britain. The Queen has also expressed a desire to return to Ireland in two years time to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising. When commenting on these visits various commentators have noted how, as recently as the 1990s, such a visit to either side of the Irish Sea would have been ‘unthinkable.’ Perhaps that’s a fair assertion.
Although relations with other countries have normalised following conflict the British-Irish relationship has been different. The long, complicated and often bitter history between the two countries, and, more recently, the Northern Ireland situation and the republican bombing campaign in mainland Britain have made this a challenge. On a more personal level, a series of Irish leaders have had family ties to the armed struggle for independence. To British leaders there have been the memories of terrorist attacks between the 1970s and 90s including the murders Earl Mountbatten, the Queen’s uncle, and several British parliamentarians.
These visits have been both positive and overdue. In spite of past differences President Higgins urged people to “think of all we have in common” and hailed the contributions to British life that Irish immigrants have made. Aside from a common language we have shared ancestral ties as well. Furthermore Britons are a large minority in Ireland as the Irish are in Britain. Both countries’ economies are deeply intertwined. Ireland is the UK’s fifth largest export market; the UK is Ireland’s second largest export market. Additionally, there are strong trade links for services.
Much has been made of the decision to invite former IRA commander Martin McGuinness to the Windsor Castle banquet attended by Higgins and others. However we should remember the atrocities committed by both republicans and loyalists and for us to move forward old foes have to reach out to one another. A ligean ar súil agam go bhfuil imeachtaí le déanaí céimeanna breise sa treo ceart. (Let’s hope that recent events are further steps in the right direction.)