Days after Brexit Scotland welcomes what is now its nearest EU neighbour
President of Ireland Michael D Higgins, who this week became the first Irish Head of State to address the Scottish Parliament, and who received an honorary degree from Edinburgh University, started his visit with a trip to one of Scotland’s most notoriously deprived, yet diverse, neighbourhoods. President Higgins attended an event at a community centre in Glasgow’s Govanhill district.
He met activists and visited a number of local projects funded by the Irish Government, before later attending a cultural event at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall with the area’s MSP, the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Govanhill was originally a popular neighbourhood for Irish migrants over the decades and more recently has become home to families arriving from Pakistan and the Roma community.
Irish and Scots always history bound
This week’s three day visit is the second official visit by President Higgins to Scotland, his first was an event on Iona in 2013 to mark the 1450th anniversary of the arrival of Ireland’s most famous emigrant to Scotland, St Colmcille.
It also follows his first State Visit by a President of Ireland to the United Kingdom in 2014. President Higgins was accompanied on the visit by his wife Sabina, an actress, and Ireland’s Diaspora Minister Joe McHugh. During the visit the President was conferred with an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws at Edinburgh University where its principal, Professor Sir Timothy O’Shea, hosted a dinner in his honour.
On Wednesday, the President addressed Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) in the Holyrood chamber, and that evening gave a speech at a symposium on Irish history, hosted by Edinburgh University.
He will then leave Scotland for France to attend a commemorative event to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. Welcoming President Higgins’ visit to the city, Glasgow Lord Provost Sadie Docherty said: “My parents are Irish and I’m from Castlemilk and it’s no secret I’m very proud of both my Irish and Scottish heritage.
“Many Glaswegians like me are of Irish descent. Indeed the Irish helped build this city. So we are far more than near neighbours. We are Celtic cousins with a rich and shared history.”
The tour will be the longest of any Irish president to Scotland and follows a low-key visit by President Higgins’ predecessor Mary McAleese in 2007. Mary Robinson also visted Iona in 1997, late on in her presidency, for the 1400th anniversary of the death of St Columba.
Scottish First Minister was only one with a planned response to Brexit
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon met President Higgins as Prime Minister David Cameron was in London telling MPs it would be for his successor to make key decisions on the UK’s future in Europe.
Ms Sturgeon – elected with a comfortable majority in May despite her party losing the Independence referendum two years ago – made clear throughout the election that whatever the Brexit vote Scotland’s place is in the EU – a view held by all but one of Northern Ireland’s parties as well.
At the week-end it was clear that only the Scottish First Minister has bothered to come up with a plan in the event of voters deciding to leave the EU – neither Downing Street nor Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage had.
Early opinion polls suggest there is now some wider support for Scotland breaking away from the UK to be an independent EU state than before last Thursday’s Referendum. But Ms Sturgeon has proceeded carefully mindful of questions of detail such as whether Scotland would have to adopt the euro.
But, fully aware of the symbolism of receiving the Head of State of a neighbouring EU country – fellow Celt, Ireland – she let it be known she had taken legal advice that Holyrood could veto any plan that brought Scotland out of Europe against its will.
But that was quickly met by claims from Westminster that Scotland’s Parliament, and Northern Ireland’s devolved assembly in Stormont enjoy only those powers that Westminster permits it and they may be withdrawn.
President Higgins, meanwhile, was expected to reinforced to MSPs how Ireland’s own identity had flourished within the EU in a speech that emphasized the “bonds of kinship and the history between our peoples” and how “intertwined Scotland and Ireland are” and how both are so proud of their diasporas.
The President was also expected to emphasise the importance of creativity as a part of policy building and the shared traditions of education and learning.