Sunday, April 06, 2014

Return Visit

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As a suitably attired Micheal D is set to pay the Queen a visit, some few reflections are in order.

This will be the first official visit of an Irish president to the British monarch.

It is in return for the Queen's visit to Ireland in 2011.

That visit was a major success, and, leaving aside the Queen's few words of Gaeilge, which probably meant no more than did her son's use of Welsh at his investiture as Prince of Wales in 1969, the highlight for me was her laying of a wreath in the memorial gardens in Parnell Square. This was a British monarch honouring those who gave their lives opposing her predecessors. Surely a significant moment.

At that time Sinn Féin refused to participate, but now Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister in the NI administration, will accept an invitation to attend a banquet in Windsor Castle. Sure to be another significant moment.

Michael D is not the first President of Ireland to visit Britain while in office. That honour goes to Mary Robinson in the spring of 1991. Her visit was not an official one and was not to the British monarch. She had been invited by Jacques Attali to attend the inauguration of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) as she had been one of the adjudicators in the competition for a bank logo.

That turned out to be her first trip outside the country since her election as president and it was conceded in the teeth of serious opposition by Government (who have the last say in these matters).

Charlie Haughey, then Taoiseach, was appalled at her election as president, and even more appalled by her promise to turn the office into a more significant one that theretofore. As a result he opposed almost anything she wanted to do, and the idea of letting her loose on the British "mainland", where she might get up to God knows what sort of mischief, was just an "appalling vista".

However he couldn't keep her bottled up for ever, so he reluctantly agreed to let her attend the inauguration, knowing that she also intended to address the Irish immigrant community in London. For safety's sake he sent a plane load of officials along to keep an eye on her (relatively speaking, that is).

Anyway, she got away with it, and continued to raise the profile of her office over the remainder of her tenure. (Though the height of that office so far must be the then President Patrick Hillery's refusal, in 1982, to accede to Charlie Haughey's request to block Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald's resignation and so indirectly install Haughey as Taoiseach.)

I was not involved directly in Mary Robinson's visit, except for getting her bounced off a lunch list which Attali had drawn up. He had a fixation on dealing with Heads of State where possible. The lunch, which was entertained by Rostropovich in person, was billed as a working lunch for EBRD Governors and as she was not in that category I had to make sure that it was Albert Reynolds, then Irish governor, who was invited.

Amazing the things you do for your country.

Some more EBRD reminisences

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