President's historic State visit begins with full welcome party
President Michael D Higgins: "There are a lot of very difficult memories and it would be to my mind wrong to suggest to anyone that you should as it were, wipe the slate clean"
President Michael D Higgins began a historic State visit to Britain this afternoon. Accompanied by his wife Sabina, he arrived in London's Heathrow airport just after 5pm for the start of the four-day visit, the first to be made by an Irish President.
President and Mrs Higgins were greeted at the steps of the government jet by the Irish ambassador to Britain Mr Dan Mulhall and his wife Greta and a welcome party including the Viscount Hood, Lord in Waiting, on behalf of Queen Elizabeth, Sir David Brewer, Lord-Lieutenant of Greater London, and Sir Brendan Hogan-Howe, head of the London Metropolitan Police.a guard of honour was provided by the Royal Air Force.
This visit is to reciprocate the British monarch's visit to the Republic in 2011, which was judged a huge success, and in return the Royals are rolling out the red carpet for the President. Mr and Mrs Higgins are to stay as guests of the queen in Windsor Castle — in royal protocol this is a privilege afforded to only the most honoured visitors — and be taken by horse-drawn carriage through the streets of Windsor on Tuesday morning.
The main royal set-piece of the visit will be a state banquet hosted by the queen in Windsor Castle tomorrow evening, which will also be attended by the Taoiseach and the Tanaiste. Also it was revealed yesterday that the North's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has accepted an invitation to the banquet. Although Sinn Fein boycotted the royal visit to Ireland three years ago, Mr McGuinness met and shook hands with the queen at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast in 2012.
There will be an acknowledgement of the two countries' tangled history when the President travels to Westminster Abbey tomorrow afternoon and lays a wreath at the Grave of the Unknown Warrior. He also will review the colours of Irish regiments of the British Army that were disbanded after the foundation of the Irish State. An estimated 200,000 Irish soldiers fought in the British Army in World War I. On the final day of his visit, he is scheduled to visit the remains of a cathedral in Coventry that was destroyed during World War II.
There is also a significant political element to the visit; President Higgins will address the joint Houses of Parliament in Westminster tomorrow, and is due to have lunch with Prime Minister David Cameron in 10, Downing Street on Wednesday, to underline the PM's recent declaration that relations between Ireland and the UK are now at "an all-time high".
Speaking earlier today, President Higgins said that progress in the Northern Ireland peace process should not be about forgetting the past. "There are a lot of very difficult memories and it would be to my mind wrong to suggest to anyone that you should as it were, wipe the slate clean," he said.
"I think Her Majesty in coming to Ireland and addressing for example issues of relations between our two people was doing it the right way."
As a nod towards the progress of the peace process in the North, the queen will host a Northern Ireland 'themed' reception in Windsor Castle on Thursday evening.