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Our relationship has moved from doubting eyes of estrangement to the trusting eyes of friendship

An edited transcript of the speech by President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins

I am greatly honoured to be the first President of Ireland to address you in this distinguished Palace of Westminster. As a former parl- iamentarian, honoured to have spent 25 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 yesterday 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. 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. 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.

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 co-operation 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.

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.

The journey of our shared British-Irish relationship has progressed from the doubting eyes of estrangement to the trusting eyes of partnership and, in recent years, to the welcoming eyes of friendship.

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.

Belfast Telegraph


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