If there’s one thing a poet is good for, it’s memorable circumlocution, which is why Michael D Higgins (the D is crucial; people wouldn’t know who you were talking about if you mentioned Michael Higgins), the Irish president and ongoing poet, has been in his element during this state visit to Britain. ‘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’, he said during his speech at Windsor Castle. ‘The shadow of our past has become the shelter of our present’. That was good. The Queen was hardly to be outdone: the gag about it taking someone ‘of Irish descent’ to make her jump from a helicopter was lovely. ‘This,’ as Miriam Lord of the Irish Times put it, ‘was the best mutual admiration society ever’.
It didn’t compare to the Queen’s visit to Ireland three years ago, but the same thing struck me about this trip as hers, when even William Hague and George Osborne looked like they were having a really good time. It’s that Ireland and Britain really don’t feel like they’re foreign to each other. Michael D may have gladdened the shade of Parnell when he spoke in parliament about ‘a closeness that once seemed unachievable’ but to be honest, it’s a closeness that feels more familial than anything, and includes episodes of fratricide – I’m coming on to one of them – as well as ones like this. I may be biased by my own background, but I don’t think that the Irish in England are felt as being much different from the Scots or Welsh here; there’s probably more chance of a family connection. The Queen looks more at home among horsey people in Cork than she does surrounded by loyalists in Belfast.
But history isn’t something to be moved rapidly on from, towards, as the Queen put it, ‘a brighter, more settled future’.