The word ‘historic’ is overused but this week’s first state visit to Britain by an Irish president qualifies for that adjective and marks another step forward in the previously troubled relationship between the two islands.
The visit coincided with the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement that Michael D Higgins said in his address to parliament ‘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.’
There is no doubting that the peace process that was delivered by Bertie Ahern, Tony Blair, the parties and the people, has delivered real results and is an achievement that the former prime minister said this week ‘remains one of the most significant and remarkable moments of peacemaking in recent times. Even today, for all the challenges, it provides a source of hope and inspiration for peacemakers everywhere.’
Today politics in Northern Ireland is facing the same struggles as elsewhere: despite being the most politicised place in Europe the anti-politics mood applies to those in Belfast as much as it does in Westminster.
Tony Blair once described the peace process as a bicycle: you were constantly having to find ways to keep the wheels turning to move it forward otherwise it would fall over.
To that extent the work is never done. Challenges remais that require continued leadership from all sides. But that should not obscure the peace and prosperity that followed those sleepless nights in Castle Buildings 16 years ago.
Therefore the public statecraft represented by the reciprocal visits by the heads of state visits is the culmination of years of work by the elected politicians to find a way that means we can remember our history but not be trapped by it.
As Higgins said this week, credit should go to the Queen for having made her own trip to Ireland in 2011, including to Croke Park and the Garden of Remembrance, and showing that we can move beyond the past into a shared future
Some of that past was reflected in the fact that the morning after the state dinner at Windsor Castle it was not the president but another Irishman who made a number of the front pages: Martin McGuinness.
It is an image that will both confuse and enrage as the former IRA activist sits down to dinner in white tie and tails with head of state of the organisation’s sworn enemy. Progress, for that is what it was, can certainly look strange but beyond the flummery it was another step to be welcomed.
For so much of our past, the personal and political have intersected with tragic consequences. The fact that the Queen’s cousin was the victim of one of the IRA’s most audacious attacks was not lost on Higgins and it was for that reason that the Irish president made the visit to Westminster Abbey and acknowledged the memorial to Lord Mountbatten.
It was particularly pleasing that Higgins, the Labour nominee for the post of president, was the one who made this historic step. Labour in Ireland, like Labour in Britain, has been out of power too often but when in power helps the nation take great strides forward – as Higgins himself did as minister in the 1990s.
The Irish relationship is also a reminder that rows about immigrants coming over to take our jobs are nothing new, despite them in reality having been actively recruited as cheap labour, for example ,in the construction of the railways.
Ed Miliband rightly spoke after his meeting with Higgins of the ‘enormous contribution made by Irish people in Britain across art and culture, business, politics and indeed every area of British society.’
My own family came over from Ireland to find work in the 1920s and that is a story that will be familiar to many. Today the Labour Party Irish Society exists to ensure our shared heritage is a source of strength as we build on the ties that bind us still.
The party has a special place for the Irish in Britain – it is no accident that so many leading trade unionists and Labour parliamentary leaders, from Denis Healey to Tony Blair, can look to Irish roots.
We work to ensure those links remain strong and that support is mobilised at election time as we campaign for the Irish in Britain who have made that positive contribution to our country but now struggle to feel the benefits themselves.
Today the economic relationship can be seen in the simple fact that Britain exports more to Ireland that it does to India, Brazil and China. As the president said in his address to both Houses of Parliament there is much we have in common and much we can do together in the years ahead.
For Britain and Ireland this week’s visit mark a further step towards normalisation, mutual respect and friendship in a relationship that has been marred by prejudice, discrimination and violence. For that we should all be grateful.