Address by Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland
to the Houses of Parliament, Westminster
Tuesday, 8th April, 2014
Mr. Speaker, Lord Speaker,
Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister,
Leader of the Opposition and distinguished guests:
I am delighted to be with you today.
Tá fíor-chaoin áthas orm bheith anseo libh ar ócáid an chéad cuairt stáit seo.
On the first day of this State Visit, I have been graciously and warmly welcomed by
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth at Windsor Castle, and I have come to this place from a poignant and uplifting visit to Westminster Abbey. I am greatly honoured to be the first President of Ireland to address you in this distinguished Palace of Westminster.
As a former parliamentarian, honoured to have spent twenty-five years as a member of Dáil Éireann, and a further decade serving in our Upper House, Seanad Éireann, it constitutes a very special privilege to be speaking today in a place that history has made synonymous with the principle of democratic governance and with respect for a political discourse that is both inclusive and pluralist.
At the very foundation of British democracy is, of course, the Magna Carta which includes the powerful statement:
“To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay, right or justice.”
Those beautiful and striking words have echoed down the centuries and remain the beating heart of the democratic tradition. Their resonance was felt almost immediately in Ireland through the Magna Carta Hiberniae – a version of the original charter reissued by the guardians of the young Henry III in November 1216.
They are also words which echo with a particular significance when we have indeed so recently seen the adverse consequences of a discourse that regards politics, society and the economy as somehow separate, each from the other; this is a divisive perspective which undermines the essential relationship between the citizen and the State. Today, as both our countries work to build sustainable economies and humane and flourishing societies, we would do well to recall the words of the Magna Carta and its challenge to embrace a concept of citizenship rooted in the principles of active participation, justice and freedom.
Such a vision of citizenship is shared by our two peoples. It is here, in this historic building that, over the centuries, the will of the British people gradually found its full democratic voice. It is inspiring to stand in a place where, for more than a century, many hundreds of dedicated parliamentarians, in their different ways, represented the interests and aspirations of the Irish people.
Next month marks the centenary of the passing of the Home Rule Act by the House of Commons – a landmark in our shared history. It was also here that the votes of Irish nationalist Members of Parliament in 1911 were instrumental in the passage of the Parliament Act, a critical step in the development of your parliamentary system.
History was also made here in 1918 when the Irish electorate chose the first woman to be elected to this parliament – Constance Markiewicz – who, of course, chose not to take her Westminster seat but, rather, to represent her constituents in our independent parliament, the first Dáil Éireann. Constance’s sister, Eva Gore-Booth, who is buried in Hampstead, had been making, and would continue to make, her own distinctive contribution to history – not only in the Irish nationalist struggle, but as part of the suffragette and labour movements in Britain.
Nearly 90 years earlier, the passage of the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 was secured by the leadership of our great Irish parliamentarian, Daniel O'Connell. O’Connell’s nationalism set no border to his concern for human rights; his advocacy extended to causes and movements for justice around the world, including the struggle to end slavery. He was totally dedicated to seeking freedom, as he put it:
“attained not by the effusion of human blood but by the constitutional combination of good and wise men.”
While O’Connell may not have achieved that ambition during his own lifetime, it was such an idealism that served to guide and influence, so many years later, the achievement of the momentous Good Friday Agreement of 1998. That achievement was founded on the cornerstones of equality, justice and democratic partnership, and was a key milestone on the road to today’s warm, deep and enduring Irish-British friendship.
Our two countries can take immense pride in the progress of the cause of peace in Northern Ireland. But of course there is still a road to be travelled – the road of a lasting and creative reconciliation – and our two Governments have a shared responsibility to encourage and support those who need to complete the journey of making peace permanent and constructive, enduring.
Mr Speaker, Lord Speaker:
I stand here at a time when the relationship between our two islands has, as I have said, achieved a closeness and warmth that once seemed unachievable. The people of Ireland greatly cherish the political independence that was secured in 1922 – an independence which was fought for by my father and many of his generation. The pain and sacrifice associated with the advent of Irish independence inevitably cast its long shadow across our relations, causing us, in the words of the Irish MP Stephen Gwynn, to:
“look at each other with doubtful eyes.”
We acknowledge that past but, as you have said, even more, we wholeheartedly welcome the considerable achievement of today’s reality – the mutual respect, friendship and cooperation which exists between our two countries, our two peoples. That benign reality was brought into sharp relief by the historic visit of Queen Elizabeth to Ireland three years ago. Her Majesty’s visit eloquently expressed how far we have come in understanding and respecting our differences, and it demonstrated that we could now look at each other through trusting eyes of mutual respect and shared commitments.
The ties between us are now strong and resolute. Formidable flows of trade and investment across the Irish Sea confer mutual benefit on our two countries. Be it in tourism, sport or culture, our people to people connections have never been as close or abundant.
Generations of Irish emigrants have made their mark on the development of this country. As someone whose own siblings made their home here at the end of the 1950s, I am very proud of the large Irish community that is represented in every walk of life in the United Kingdom. That community is the living heart in the evolving British-Irish relationship. I greatly cherish how the Irish in Britain have preserved and nurtured their culture and heritage while, at the same time, making a distinctive and valued contribution to the development of modern Britain.
Mr Speaker, Lord Speaker:
As both our islands enter periods of important centenaries we can and must, reflect on the ethical importance of respecting different, but deeply interwoven, narratives. Such reflection will offer us an opportunity to craft a bright future on the extensive common ground we share and, where we differ in matters of interpretation, to have respectful empathy for each other’s perspectives.
This year the United Kingdom commemorates the First World War. In Ireland too, we remember the large number of our countrymen who entered the battlefields of Europe, never to return home. Amongst those was the Irish nationalist MP Tom Kettle who wrote 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.”
It is, I think, significant that Kettle refers to “this tragedy of Europe.” We must always remember that this brutal and tragic war laid the hand of death on every country in Europe.
Kettle died as an Irish patriot, a British soldier and a true European. He understood that to be authentically Irish we must also embrace our European identity. It is an identification we proudly claim today, an identification we share with the United Kingdom, with whom we have sat around the negotiating table in Europe for over 40 years. We recognise that it has been in that European context of mutuality and interdependence that we took the most significant steps towards each other.
Mr Speaker, Lord Speaker:
I have been struck by the imposing canvases in this room, these depictions of the Battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo, painted by the Irishman Daniel Maclise. They call to mind another famous painting by this great artist that hangs in the National Gallery in Dublin. It depicts the 12th century marriage of Aoife, daughter of the King of Leinster, to Strongbow, the leader of the first Anglo-Norman force to arrive in Ireland. Those nuptials took place in the context of conflict and did not necessarily become a harbinger of harmony. Neither was there to be a marriage of hearts and minds between our two islands in the following centuries.
Today, however, we have a fresh canvas on which to sketch our shared hopes and to advance our overlapping ambitions. What we now enjoy between Ireland and Britain is a friendly, co-operative partnership based on mutual respect, reciprocal benefit, and deep and indelible personal links that bind us together in cultural and social terms.
In the final days of his life, the soldier and parliamentarian, to whom I have referred, Tom Kettle dreamed of a new era of friendship between our two peoples – “Free, we are free to be your friend” – was how he put it in one of his poems.
The journey then of our shared British-Irish relationship towards that freedom has progressed from the doubting eyes of estrangement to the trusting eyes of partnership and, in recent years, to the welcoming eyes of friendship.
I am conscious that I am in the company here of so many distinguished parliamentarians who have made their own individual contributions to the journey we have travelled together. I acknowledge them and I salute them, as I acknowledge and salute all those who have selflessly worked to build concord between our peoples. I celebrate our warm friendship and I look forward with confidence to a future in which that friendship can grow even more resolute and more productive.
Gur fada a ghabhfaidh pobail agus parlaimintí an dá oileán seo le chéile go síochánta, go séanmhar agus sa chairdeas buandlúite idir Éire agus an Bhreatain.
Long may our two peoples and their parliaments walk together in peace, prosperity and ever closer friendship between Ireland and Britain.
Mr Speaker, Members, thank you again for your kind welcome.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.