Can Europe Make It?

The historic visit of Irish President Michael D. Higgins to the UK

It provided a rare attempt to ‘reconstruct self-other relations making possible a conversation of equal but different cultures’.

Faye Donnelly
6 July 2014

On Monday, 7 April 2014, President Michael D. Higgins became the first Irish President to visit the United Kingdom. The unprecedented nature of this trip signifies the turbulent history shared by these neighbouring countries, and a major watershed in the reconciliation of Anglo-Irish relations. Undoubtedly, the historic visit of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II to the Republic of Ireland in May 2011 paved the way for this reciprocal voyage.

President Higgins delivered two keynote speeches on Tuesday, 8 April 2014. The first address was to the Houses of Parliament, Westminster[i], while the second was a toast he gave at Windsor Castle later the same day. How did he endeavour to translate the past into the present, and even the future?

Address to the Houses of Parliament, Westminster.

The speech President Higgins gave at Westminster was multi-layered. It eloquently wove diverse issues, ranging from the Magna Carta to the complex historical lineages in Anglo-Irish relations to the Queen’s visit in 2011 and his current visit to the UK, into united and progressive processes of reconciliation. A recurring theme is the power of words and dialogue to constitute and frame historical canvases, both in the past and today. Political discourses, President Higgins reminded us should be ‘inclusive and pluralist’. More poignantly, he confronted how words can be mobilised as weapons that destroy,

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”.

Yet, the overall message is not a bleak one. His address proclaims that progressive change, and the realisation of what he called ‘once unachievable’ visions, is always possible. Our task should we accept it is to engage in prologues that ensure ‘we’ continue to ‘have a fresh canvas on which to sketch our shared hopes and to advance our overlapping ambitions’. For it is, ‘within such a space each finds the possibility of a conversation of traditions, voices, perspectives and cultures’.

State Banquet, Windsor Castle

The toast that President Higgins gave at Windsor Castle cemented the importance but also the difficulties of breaking down language barriers in Anglo- Irish relations. Recollecting that Her Majesty had, ‘famously used some words of Irish’ during her state visit, the Irish President purposefully integrated bilingual speech acts of Gaeilge and English throughout his discussion. Significantly, he used an Irish ‘seanfhocal, or wise saying’, ‘ar scáth a chéile a mhairimíd’ to convey his messages of peace and reconciliation.

As President Higgins explained, this term is most frequently translated into English as ‘we live in the shadow of each other’. However, he provided an alternative, ‘more open and more accommodating’ translation that not only changed the meaning of the words but also the entire canvas of Anglo-Irish relations. Importantly the Irish President highlighted that ‘scáth’ also means shelter. Adopting this latter meaning, he proceeded to reframe and re-narrate Anglo-Irish relations away from reified antagonism towards common connections. As President Higgins said,

‘Ireland and Britain live in both the shadow and in the shelter of one another, and so it has been since the dawn of history. Through conquest and resistance, we have cast shadows on each other, but we have also gained strength from one another as neighbours and, most especially, from the contribution of those who have travelled between our islands in recent decades’.

This ‘more open and more accommodating’ translation is significant. It provides a rare attempt to ‘reconstruct self-other relations making possible a conversation of equal but different cultures’. The quest for equality rather than assimilation requires a much deeper level of respect and recognition as it allows the other to be viewed as a ‘subject’ as opposed to an ‘object’.

Another admirable trait at work here is that before, and again at, this state banquet President Higgins did not negate the past or ‘wipe the slate clean’. Nor did he attempt to create dualisms between the two countries, or the past and the present. On the contrary, echoing the speech that Queen Elizabeth gave at Dublin Castle on 18 May 2011, this speech calls for the creation of spaces that ‘bow to the past but not to be bound by it’. The dilemmas we are left with are how this feasible this is, how fully it allows the past to be translated into the present and what remains unsaid in the process.


Undoubtedly this state tour reinforces the prospect that the construction of peace and reconciliation are now firm bedrocks of Anglo-Irish relations. What also stands out is the power of language to include as well as exclude certain groups and voices. Indeed each of the speeches President Higgins delivered during his time in the United Kingdom represent deliberate and skilful attempts to create inclusive and pluralist conversations. Moves in this direction provide a welcome alternative to the so-called ‘war of words’ that are fast becoming the norm rather than the exception in international affairs and everyday parlances.

Drawing inspiration from President Higgins, should we wish to do so, allows us to engage in the preludes of a conversation that ‘reconstruct self-other relations’ as equal but different. This is something we would all do well to remember as the past is repeatedly translated into the present and the future.  

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