Queen Elizabeth rolls out the red carpet for state visit
IT WAS, as they say in west London, a grand soft day. At just after 5pm, the government jet appeared under the sodden grey skies overhanging Heathrow, arriving serendipitously during a respite from the rain.
In the VIP terminal, everything was set for the arrival of President Higgins. On the steps awaiting him was the official welcome party – among them Ireland's ambassador to Britain Dan Mulhall and his wife Greta, Viscount Hood, Lord-in-Waiting was there on behalf of the queen, and Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, Commissioner of the London Metropolitan police.
The red carpet from the plane was lined with uniformed members of the Royal Air Force, and outside the terminal, the President's car awaited – an impressive gleaming brown Bentley with a royal crest on the doors and a Tricolour flying on the roof.
In fact, so eye-catching was the Bentley, that its rapid journey to the airport for the arrival amid a cavalcade of police vehicles caused a bit of a fender-bender between some rubber-necking drivers on the road to Heathrow who were spotted exchanging details shortly after the high-speed convoy had sped past.
The President emerged from the jet, accompanied by a very glamorous Sabina who was dressed in a striking forest-green dress and coat suit by award-winning Irish designer Helen McAlinden, and an elegant feathered jewel-green fascinator by Nessa Cronin, in-house milliner for Mad Hatters boutique in Dublin.
In putting together her various ensembles for this historic trip, Sabina enlisted the advice of legendary costume designer Joan Bergin who has won a clutch of Emmy Awards for her work on 'The Tudors'.
The greeting ceremony at the airport was brief, as the state visit officially begins this morning with a packed programme of events.
Queen Elizabeth, in response to her tremendously successful sojourn in the Republic in May 2011, has rolled out the metaphorical red carpet, as well as the actual one.
It's all royal hands on deck for the President. With the exception of Prince William and Kate – who have just begun a visit to Australia – most of the senior members of the royal family are taking part in some part of the four-day programme.
For starters, the President and his wife will be officially greeted at the Irish embassy this morning by Prince Charles and Camilla who will travel together to Windsor where the formal welcome by the queen and Prince Philip will take place in the town.
And even this most intensely royal town – if the queen has one palace she calls home, it's Windsor Castle – has got into the swing of the state visit. Almost 100 flagpoles were raised along the route the party will take in carriages to the castle, and will fly both Tricolours and Union Jacks. The fact that President Higgins will be staying in Windsor Castle for the duration of his trip is regarded by protocol experts as a great honour.
And it seems the monarch is being most flaithulach with her palaces – her staff offered him the loan of Buckingham Palace for a scheduled meeting with deputy prime minister Nick Clegg later in the week.
Today, after lunch with the queen in Windsor Castle, President Higgins travels back into Westminster – first to the Abbey where he will lay a wreath at the Grave of the Unknown Soldier.
This evening, the main set piece of the visit takes place – the formal banquet in Windsor Castle, which will be attended by about 130 guests, including the Taoiseach, the Tanaiste, who is accompanying the President for the entirety of the visit, and, most significantly, the North's Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness.
Sinn Fein boycotted the queen's groundbreaking 2011 visit – a mis-step by the party who failed to read the public's positive response to the monarch's arrival into the Republic, but Martin McGuinness subsequently shook hands with the queen during a meticulously choreographed meeting in Belfast in 2012.
The visit is a carefully balanced blend of ceremonial, cultural and social events; there is also a political element to the programme, the Pres- ident is to have lunch with Prime Minister David Cameron in 10 Downing Street on Wednesday.
Also, in recognition of the progress of the peace process in the North, the queen will host a Northern Ireland 'themed' reception in Windsor Castle on Thursday evening.
Before he left Dublin yesterday, 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."
A day of pomp and pageantry lies ahead – and hopefully the President will get a bit of decent weather.