History will be made this week as The Queen hosts the Irish President in the first state visit to Britain since Ireland’s independence. Irish Ambassador Daniel Mulhall spoke to Elizabeth Stewart about the significance of the event
When Ireland’s President Michael D Higgins rides in a carriage through the streets of Windsor, cheered on by crowds of Brits and Irish alike, it will be a milestone, says Ambassador Mulhall.
The visit will be yet another high water mark in Irish-British relations, following on from the State Visit of the Queen in 2011, the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and the decades of patient diplomacy that have helped the two nations move beyond their troubled shared history towards a relationship of equal partners.
“Peace comes dropping slow,” smiles Mulhall, quoting Ireland's Nobel Laureate W B Yates. It’s a line the President, a published poet, would appreciate.
The Queen's visit had spine-tingling moments who can forget her addressing the State Banquet in Gaelic or the visit to the Garden of Remembrance to pay her respects to the fallen who gave their lives in the struggle for Ireland’s independence?
A decade of remembrance
This visit will also be "rich in symbolism" assures the Ambassador. A highlight will be the Ceiliúradh (Celebration), a night of poetry, dance and song at the Royal Albert Hall in honour of the President, featuring some of the finest Irish artists.
The President will lay a wreath to the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey, especially poignant in the Centenary year of the First World War, in which 500,000 Irishmen fought, and 49,000 never came home a contribution the Irish are more ready to acknowledge with the passage of 100 years, says Mulhall, a historian by training.
It marks the start of a decade of significant milestones the centenary of the Home Rule Act this year, the Easter Rising in 2016, Bloody Sunday in 2020, leading up to the 100th anniversary of Irish independence in 2021.
“We are conscious of the need to commemorate those events but in a way that is appropriate, that is sensitive,” reflects Mulhall, in his Embassy on Grosvenor Place. “It's not a triumphalist celebration; it's a recognition of the central strand in Irish history, which is the birth of the independent Irish state that we represent today, here in this building.”
While it’s true the two countries’ history is closely, sometimes painfully intertwined, the modern relationship between Britain and Ireland is much more multi-layered. Economic ties are significant Britain is Ireland’s number one trading partner and third largest investor, while Ireland is the fifth biggest export market for Britain. “Considering we have a population of just 4.6 million, that's an extraordinary fact that the UK exports more to Ireland than it does to India, China and Brazil combined,” Mulhall points out.
The two countries even embarked on a joint trade mission to Singapore recently, a part of the world Mulhall knows well, having served in Malaysia as Ambassador (2001-05). To compete with the likes of the Asian tiger economies, and the emerging world in general, sometimes teamwork is required, he says.
Britain’s roads, canals and railways would not exist without Irish builders and its hospitals could not run without Irish nurses. Culturally the Irish diaspora, numbering in the millions in the UK, has made a huge impact on Britain. That was recognised recently, when the Queen hosted a party at the Palace for the many Irish men and women who have enriched British life. It was if the Ambassador’s Tweets were anything to go by a jolly good craic.
Another important factor in this evolving partnership, not always recognised, is the role of the European Union. “Our membership of the EU has contributed positively to Irish-British relations,” explains Mulhall, who served in Brussels in 1990 and was Assistant Secretary of the EU Division in 2005. As a diplomat he has seen up close how the foundations of the modern British-Irish relationship were laid in the council rooms of Brussels.
“Within the EU, we've sat around the same table for 40 years,” says Mulhall. “There Irish prime ministers and their British counterparts were able to have sidebar meetings about the Northern Ireland peace process within the confines of the European councils without a big fanfare. This helped to move things forward and to cement the relationship between the two.”
The ground-breaking Anglo-Irish agreement followed in 1985, which for the first time gave Dublin an explicit role in Northern Ireland. That was followed by the Downing Street Declaration in 1993 which affirmed that Northern Ireland could join with the Republic if a majority of people were in favour of such a move. That catalysed the 1994 Forum for Peace and Reconciliation (to which the Ambassador was seconded), which in turn set in motion processes that eventually led to the Good Friday Agreement.
But there is still work to be done in Northern Ireland to resolve some of the most complex issues relating to identity. “There are issues of flags, parading and the past,” explains Mulhall. “The Irish Government strongly supports the Haass Process [talks under the guidance of US diplomat Richard Haass]…so that the next steps along the road towards reconciliation can be taken and that, at all costs, we prevent any kind of slippage.”
Roadblocks to peace
The talks failed to reach a conclusion in December and the process has thrown up the occasional roadblock, admits Mulhall. Recently the ‘on the runs’ controversy over letters issued by the Northern Ireland Office to IRA members wanted for crimes committed during The Troubles, effectively giving them immunity from prosecution, threatened to derail the Haass process.
But the Ambassador, a long-time observer of the peace talks, remains cautiously optimistic: “There'll always be hurdles to be jumped, but look back over the last 20 years and you see that we've developed the capacity to jump hurdles that come in our way…Remember a time when decommissioning looked like an absolutely impossible obstacle? But that was somehow removed.”
Intense campaigning during the upcoming local and European elections may complicate matters, not just for the Haass Process, but also for Britain’s relationship with Europe should anti-European parties like UKIP do well.
Irish worries about Brexit
“We hope that Britain will remain fully engaged in Europe,” says the Ambassador. “Britain has played a very constructive role in Europe. It has contributed very much to the evolution of the single market in particular, which is a great priority for us.”
Ireland, like Britain, agrees that the EU needs to reform and become more competitive to meet the challenges of the future, but sees its future firmly within the Union and worries about the potential consequences of an in-out referendum in the UK.
“We are sceptical about the idea that you need to indulge in a full-blown process of internal reflection on future treaty changes. The priority has to be on economic recovery. Using the institutions we now have and making them work better rather than starting to pick them apart.”
Mulhall, whose London post follows a four-year stint as Ambassador in Berlin, doesn’t see Germany, or other European countries for that matter, agreeing to anything in the way of wholesale treaty change that might weaken the EU. “Frankly, there's a lot of reticence out there, including in Ireland,” he says.
Vow of silence
Another potential exit from a union that Mulhall will be watching closely is Scotland’s Independence referendum.
Having served as Consul General in Edinburgh (1998-2001), when the first Scottish Parliament was voted in, he knows the political landscape well, but when it comes to commenting on Ireland’s preferences for an independent Scotland or keeping the United Kingdom together, he is resolutely keeping his counsel. “Anything I might say is likely to fall on one or other side of the argument,” he smiles. “So I am taking a vow of silence.”
That will take some considerable restraint on the part of the Ambassador, who is an enthusiastic Tweeter. But for the next few days, at least, his Tweets will be devoted to the State Visit. So for those who want an engaging insider’s view of history in the making, just follow the Ambassador Mulhall on @DanMulhall