Posted By: April 14, 2014

Tom Kelly. Irish News( Belfast). Monday, April 14, 2014
CHRISTOPHER Moran, chairman of Cooperation Ireland gave a speech in 2013 to
assembled members from both the house of Lords and Commons where he said: “The
message is clear. We must invest in communities and peace or we will pay in
conflict. This means delivery on a shared future, not just with political agreement
but with political will and action.”

Last week saw such “political will” in action with the state visit of President
Higgins and his wife Sabina to Great Britain.

Much attention during the state visit fell upon Deputy First Minister, Martin
McGuinness for his belated but no less positive and welcome decision to participate
in many of the key events during the state visit; and for agreeing to keep to all
royal protocols including standing for the British national anthem and toasting the
Queen. How high he raised his glass is immaterial even if some news correspondents
seemed obsessed with this ridiculous tittle-tattle. The first ever-official state
visit by an Irish president could have been eclipsed by the deputy first minister’s
debutante presence at court if it was not for one person – An Uachtaran Na hEireann,
Michael D Higgins.

Like some political commentators, I had reservations about a Higgins presidency,
after the ground breaking but imperious reign of Mary Robinson and the
bridge-building capabilities of Mary McAleese, gifting the presidency to a retired
academic socialist who had spent a lifetime in politics seemed like a retrograde

And yes it was a risk as Michael D often oversteps the limitations of his office in
speeches, sometimes sounding like a Jesuitical bishop moralising and philosophising
about the ascetic values or lack of them in a modern capitalist system. Michael D,
the poet describes himself as “spiritual” rather than “religious” as do most
‘lefties’ (and ironically many business barons too) until it’s their funerals which
often contain more bells and smells than a Russian orthodox Easter ceremony.

Nevertheless when Michael D won the 2011 presidential election he rode the back of
an anti-Fianna Fail sentiment and was the only beneficiary of the now infamous Sinn
Fein allegations against the then front-runner Sean Gallagher.

Far from turning the Aras into a retirement home, Michael D and his wife have
maintained the open nature that the McAleeses cultivated during their presidential
tenure. He also put his prudence into action by immediately asking the government to
reduce his salary entitlement of E 325k to E 250k.

Whatever about his politics and his sometimes-dishevelled appearance Michael D has
won many admirers including this writer. He has been a warm and engaging ‘father’
figure to the Irish nation and the wider Irish diaspora. His wife is a consort who
adds both style and substance to her husband’s role. Certainly one imagines dinner
with the Higgins family would never be dull, even if that means you would have to
brush up on your knowledge of Chekov, Heaney or the importance of existentialism in
our lives. So to paraphrase John 4.23 – “So cometh the hour, cometh the man” and
Michael D. Higgins proved beyond all doubt that he was indeed the right president at
the right hour to represent Ireland in this first official state visit to Britain.

During an interview with veteran journalist Feargal Keane, An Uachtaran reminded
those protagonists of violence that they should apologise profoundly for their

actions and more importantly they “show more humility about the past” – virtues
completely absent from the current common narrative at Stormont.

The president also put down a marker for us all when said, “society could not afford
to wipe out the memory of violence” adding that “affecting a kind of amnesia is of
no value to us.”

But ultimately the president’s visit to Britain was like a ‘topping out’ ceremony in
the normalisation between two countries that are intertwined by struggle, trade,
language, history, families, migration and emigration. In fairness only someone like
Michael D could have found the words, tone and indeed the humour to win both hearts
and minds during what was a truly historic week.

As for the culmination of the official events in Britain, it was not the speeches,
the toasts or handshakes that demonstrated how far both countries have travelled but
the poetry, music and craic that found expression in the Albert Hall with the
Ceilluradh. Most poignant of all was northern songster Paul Brady playing one of his
signature songs Nothing But The Same Old Story – but in London 2014 he couldn’t be
further from the truth.