by Sandy Myhre
The first door opened to welcome the President of Ireland, Michael Higgins, during a visit to New Zealand in late October, was that of the Governor General of New Zealand, Dame Patsy Reddy in Wellington.
(Photo Marty Melville) She signalled a sartorial salutation to Mr Higgins by wearing a Kelly-green suit and matching pillbox hat. The former lawyer and businesswoman was appointed as the Queen’s representative in New Zealand in 2016 and, in fact, she and the Irish President have career aspects in common.
Both are former university lecturers, and each holds an interest in the arts – he as an established poet and author and she as Chairman of the NZ Film Commission and a director of Sky City Entertainment Group. If the conversation flagged for any reason she could have name-dropped her distant cousin, Australian singer Helen Reddy.
For the newly-elected Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Adern, it must have been a busy morning as she welcomed Mr Higgins. She wore a blue dress beneath a dark grey jacket and, shortly afterwards but entirely unconnected, changed into an orange shirt beneath a different grey jacket to announce her new Cabinet line-up.
(Photo Radio New Zealand) Who is wearing what was hardly top of the list of conversational protocols and Ms Adern has far weightier things on her shoulders than her dangling ear-rings. And in the interest of gender fairness it should be mentioned the costume du jour for men was dark grey suits.
Part of what the Prime Minister and the President did discuss was the impending opening of new embassies in both countries. The nearest Irish embassy for New Zealand is across what Kiwis call The Ditch, over the Tasman Sea to Australia, and New Zealand’s representation in Ireland is currently co-ordinated through a High Commission in London.
It’s an anachronistic throw-back and smacks of paternalism that top-level diplomatic representation between Ireland and New Zealand is still hosted by a third-party country. It harks back to the early 1800s when New Zealand was a frontier outpost of the British penal colony of New South Wales in, yes, Australia. As Ms Adern pointed out to Mr Higgins, one in six Kiwis claim some Irish heritage, herself included.
The formal part of the Higgins’ schedule included a State dinner, a visit to Parliament, the perfunctory laying of wreaths, a visit to the National Library and hand-shakes with academics at Auckland University. In turn, he presented New Zealand Rugby with a Waterford crystal bowl in memory of Dave Gallaher, the Irish-born captain of the Original All Blacks 1905-06 tour of Britain, France and North America.
As the Presidential party headed northwards the programme became progressively less prescribed culminating at the end of the week in a welcome at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds and museum in the picturesque Bay of Islands.
It was on this site in 1840 that the Treaty of Waitangi was signed between the British Crown and around 500 Maori chiefs, resulting in British sovereignty over New Zealand which thus became the only country ever colonised by the British to have a formal treaty declaration. It is now known as the birthplace of the nation.
Most of the chiefs signed a Maori-language version of the treaty but the English and Maori versions held different meanings and, so, dissimilar expectations. Resolving those distinctions has presented the country with what is commonly called ‘challenges’ ever since.
During the ceremonial Maori welcome (known as a powhiri) where he accepted the traditional challenge (wero) none of these things were overtly apparent to the President of Ireland, even if he knew the history. Indeed, given his academic majors of political science and sociology, he may well do and strengthening this conjecture is the fact he is Patron of the Clans of Ireland, an organisation formed to authenticate, register and promote historical Irish clan families.
The day had dawned misty and if ever there was a photo opportunity par excellence it was the vista from the meeting house, past the flagpole and out to sea. One of the Irish photographers said it was “like a painting I’ve fallen in to”. He added some Irish green himself by saying he was “highly envious” of those who live in the Bay of Islands.
For this leg of the Presidential journey the Irish media, perhaps surprisingly, out-numbered local journalists. The only New Zealand television station represented was Maori Television who grabbed an interview with Mr Higgins after he emerged from the meeting house.
It was clear the President was very well-informed about the Treaty of Waitangi and its significance, calling it “one of the great founding documents that yielded a set of possibilities”.
He referenced the environment, climate change and even women’s suffrage, possibly acknowledging that New Zealand was the first country in the world to give women the vote. Some of his reply to questioning by the Maori Television reporter was, at the reporter’s request, in Gaelic.
After that, it was time for a cup of tea in a tent before a stroll around the Waitangi museum. The softly-spoken academic from Limerick departed the country the next day.
This was a significant visit. Three years ago, Michael Higgins made the first state visit by an Irish President to the United Kingdom and stayed with the Queen at Windsor Castle. In the same year he made a week-long state visit to China. New Zealand, then, was his third state visit of choice. Or, more correctly since he went there first, his fourth after Australia.