Friday 23 February 2018

Flashback 1993: The first Irish head of state meeting with a British monarch

This week 23 years ago, Mary Robinson became the first Irish head of state to meet with a British monarch

Momentous: President Mary Robinson with the Queen outside Buckingham Palace in 1993. Photo: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland
Momentous: President Mary Robinson with the Queen outside Buckingham Palace in 1993. Photo: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

Ger Siggins

For much of the 20th century, relations between Ireland and its nearest neighbour were cool. Temperatures dropped significantly over the economic war in the '30s and Ireland's neutrality in World War II. The sense of unfinished business permeated diplomacy during the Troubles, but by 1990 there was significant warmth in trade, tourism, business and even politics.

The new President, elected in that year, had made a big play of reaching out to Irish emigrants and saw the opportunity to help Anglo-Irish relations.

And so, on May 27, 1993 - her 49th birthday - President Mary Robinson popped in for tea with the head of state of those neighbours, Queen Elizabeth II of England.

None of her predecessors had set foot in Britain, except to change planes. Even when President Hillery was invited to the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, he was advised by the Government to decline the invitation.

But Mrs Robinson decided she wouldn't be pushed around, and successfully insisted she be allowed join other heads of state at the opening of a European bank in London. Next she asked the government could she travel to Cambridge to deliver a speech and receive an honorary degree. It was only after he reluctantly agreed that Taoiseach Charlie Haughey realised that the Chancellor of the University was the Queen's husband, Prince Philip.

She met the royal, the world remained on its axis, and a precedent had been set.

"Partly because I've never been fazed by royalty of any kind, least of all the British royal family, I felt entirely relaxed," recalled Mrs Robinson in her authorised biography.

She next met the prince at a memorial service for the victims of an IRA bombing in Warrington, where she was applauded as she left the church. Soon, she was meeting royals all over the place, at rugby matches and memorial ceremonies, and told a TV interview that she would like to meet the Queen.

By February 1993, Mr Haughey had gone and Albert Reynolds granted permission for her to travel for a strictly personal visit. The visit didn't happen in a vacuum - Reynolds was in secret discussions with Republicans that would end in the IRA ceasefire - and the Taoiseach was keen not to give any suggestion that this was a State visit, which would require a reciprocal visit.

Mrs Robinson's party arrived at Buckingham Palace at 4.55pm where they were greeted by the Queen's private secretary, Sir Robert Fellowes. Robinson's staff pushed the Palace to allow press photographers, reckoning that a historic moment needed to be captured.

Mrs Robinson, in an Ib Jorgensen fuchsia suit (later donated to Madame Tussaud's waxworks) and her husband Nick were brought up to the first floor to meet the Queen for a friendly and informal tea party that lasted 30 minutes. They sipped a blend of Chinese and India tea in Minton cups, exchanged signed photos of themselves, and discussed the prospects for peace. The President also handed over an extra present of a hand-turned wooden cup from Spiddal.

Afterwards, the ground-breaking photos were taken and published all over the world, including the front page of the Irish Independent.

"Palace Talks Prepare Way for State Visit" ran the lead headline over a piece by Bernard Purcell and Gene McKenna. They went on, reporting the President as saying the visit was "symbolic of the maturing relationship between Ireland and Britain".

In 1996 the President's 15th visit to Britain was upgraded to an Official Visit, and she left office the following year.

Her successor took things further, and met the Queen several times in London and at First World War commemorations on the continent. In May 2011 President McAleese welcomed Queen Elizabeth on her four-day State Visit to Ireland, and in April 2014 President Higgins made the first State Visit to the UK.

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