WHEN Queen Elizabeth II steps upon Irish soil today a new chapter in Irish-British relations will begin. That step will be both significant and historic.
It will be significant in that it will mark the excellent relationship that has developed between our two sovereign states, based on mutual respect, on partnership and on friendship. It will be historic in that it will be the first visit by a British monarch to the Irish State. In effect it is history in the making.
The state visit of Queen Elizabeth is symbolic of how far relations between Britain and Ireland have come, the depth of our mutual understanding of each other and the warmth with which that relationship is now expressed.
It reflects the closeness of our ties to each other, both historically and in a contemporary sense. It marks a normalisation of relations between each other as sovereign states and as close neighbours. To a great extent this normalisation has already happened. Irish people form the largest minority group in Britain and conversely, British people are the largest minority group in Ireland.
The question of identity has been central to and an important aspect of the Irish-British relationship. Coming to terms with the issue of identity has played a large part of the progress that has been made between our two countries. Joining the European Community in 1973 provided Ireland with a broader platform in which a more modern and equal relationship was developed with our neighbour.
Equal respect for Irish and British identity also lies at the heart of the progress that has been made in Northern Ireland.
After a number of difficult decades, Irishness is warmly welcomed in Britain. It has become an exceptionally good brand in terms of people and products and is proudly worn by the many Irish people living and working in Britain.
The state visit is an acknowledgement of the warmth and importance with which the Irish community are held in Britain and recognition of the major contribution that they are making to business, community and artistic life there.
The balance of the programme for the queen's visit, notably the events at the Garden of Remembrance and at the War Memorial at Islandsbridge, will enrich different understandings of identity.
The Northern peace process has brought Ireland and Britain closer together, not only because it has gone a long way to removing a serious issue between our two countries but also because the peace process itself was necessarily a joint British-Irish project, driven jointly by successive governments in London and Dublin.
The state visit will also further strengthen awareness in Ireland and Britain and around the world of the importance of British-Irish relations in all their dimensions, in trade, business and politically.
The extent of our business and trade relationship is illustrated by the fact that every week €1bn of goods and services are traded across the Irish Sea and every week up to 100,000 people visit Ireland from Britain.
There are more than 40,000 Irish people on the boards of British companies, well over double the figure for any other country. And Britain exports more to Ireland than it does to China, India, Russia and Brazil combined. Ireland is also Britain's most important market for both food and fashion.
Politically, the two countries have been brought closer together, not just by cooperation on Northern Ireland and in the EU, but by increasingly shared political experience -- including of coalition government and banking crises -- and through a significantly shared media space.
Britain and Ireland are also culturally close. We speak the same language both linguistically and metaphorically. We laugh at the same jokes and follow many of the same sports teams. Irish people, productions and products are prominent in every branch of culture in Britain.
British culture is, of course, likewise influential in Ireland, especially through TV, radio and newspapers. This cultural closeness is of exceptional importance in the promotion of Irish interests, including in the promotion of business and tourism, important elements in our economic recovery.
The Irish community in Britain plays a crucial role in the modern relationship between our countries. The number of Irish-born people living in Britain is over three-quarters of a million and rising. The inclusion of people of Irish descent brings the figure to more than five million.
It is noteworthy that Irish people occupy not only senior roles across all dimensions of British society but also many positions which might be regarded as being at the very heart of British society -- even of the British establishment.
To cite a few examples: the chief executive of British Airways; the president-elect of the Royal Institute of British Architects; the chairman of the British Museum; the chair of the London Assembly; the Editor of the 'Daily Telegraph'; the BBC Sports Personality of the Year and the number five batsman on the English Cricket team are all Irish.
There are, of course, challenges in the British-Irish relationship as in any normal and mature bilateral relationship. We may not always agree on issues but the context in which such issues are now addressed is one of friendship, respect and cooperation.
Recent developments in the Irish economy and banking sector have impacted on Ireland's reputation abroad. The supportive response of the British government was notable and highlights Britain's positive attitude towards Ireland and the interconnection between our economies.
The vast majority of Irish people welcome this historic visit by Queen Elizabeth and appreciate the significance of this historic event. That welcome will be warm and sincere.
The visit symbolises the end of centuries of division and divisiveness. It acknowledges the warm and friendly relations that now exist between our countries and it signals a new era in the close relationship between our peoples, as sovereign states and close neighbours.
Above all, I believe the visit will be seen to be a powerful symbol of reconciliation all around the world.