Irish President Michael D Higgins to pay UK state visit

Michael D Higgins will be the first Irish president to pay a state visit to the UK

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President Michael D Higgins is to become the first Irish head of state to make a state visit to the UK.

The president and his wife Sabina have accepted an invitation from the Queen for a three-day visit in April.

In May 2011 the Queen became the first British monarch to visit the Republic of Ireland.

The British Ambassador to Ireland, Dominick Chilcott said it showed how close the relationship was between the two countries.

"A state visit is the highest mark of respect and esteem that one country can pay to another in the diplomatic parlance so the fact that the president of Ireland is paying the first state visit by an Irish president to the UK next year is extremely meaningful, it's a very significant thing to do," he said.

"The fact that is happening only three years after Her Majesty the Queen paid her state visit to Ireland, so two state visits within a very short period of time, I think that also tells you a lot about how interested we all are in investing in this relationship and what a good state of affairs it is in at the moment."

Commemorations

During the Queen's visit to Ireland, she paid her respects to republican dead at Dublin's Garden of Remembrance and visited Croke Park - site of the 1920 Bloody Sunday massacre.

She also made a speech on Anglo-Irish history at Dublin Castle.

President Higgins' visit to the UK comes ahead of planned commemorations by the Irish government to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising in 2016.

Analysis

The significance of President Higgins state visit has to be seen in the context of the deep and warm relationships between Ireland and the United Kingdom.

The Queen's historic journey to the Republic in May 2011 banished many ghosts of past mistrust.

And it was always only a matter of time before the Irish President made a return trip: even so two state visits in less than three years says something.

British sources say the fact that the president and his wife will stay at the more homely Windsor Castle rather than Buckingham Palace is symbolically important.

In the past the issue of Northern Ireland dominated British-Irish relations. That is no longer the case.

The 1916 event saw rebels take over a number of buildings in Dublin as part of an uprising against British rule.

British troops put down the rebellion and many ringleaders were executed.

Respectful

"The 1916 Rising is going to be a very important moment in the decade of commemorations that are taking place in the Republic," Mr Chilcott said.

"It's a commemoration, that we hope the British governments will be able to take part in as well and that although we'll be remembering events that were tumultuous, and indeed divisive between the UK and the people of Ireland at the time, nowadays we can look at them 100 years on, a bit more dispassionately perhaps and able to give those events and those who took part in them the respect that the historical memory deserves.

"Now clearly if the relationship between Britain and Ireland is as good as it can possibly be, that will be easier to do.

"The state visit next year will take it on to an even stronger level. It will add momentum to all of this and I think that will be helpful in the context of remembering the Rising."

Mr Higgins, a former Labour government minister, poet and academic, has met members of the Royal Family before.

Both he and his wife met the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh in June 2012 at Belfast's Lyric Theatre, and he has also met Princess Anne and the Duke of Kent.

Though he has visited the UK several times since becoming president, these were not full state visits.

'Positive relationship'

The Irish prime minister, Enda Kenny, welcomed the news.

"This is a further demonstration of the warm and positive relationship that now exists between Ireland and the United Kingdom," he said.

It is expected that the Queen will host a state banquet for the president, during which both heads of state will make speeches.

Although the official programme is yet to be finalised it is expected that Mr and Mrs Higgins will stay at Windsor Castle from 8 April to 10 April.

Queen Elizabeth inspects a Guard of Honour at the residence of the Irish President in Dublin. The Queen visited the Republic of Ireland in May 2011
Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh at the Guinness Storehouse, Dublin. She was the first British Monarch to visit the Irish Republic

The president is expected to include official visits to the prime minister at Downing Street as well as to the leader of the Opposition.

In line with other state visits it is likely the Lord Mayor of the City of London will host a banquet for the president and it is also expected that the Queen will host a state banquet.

Recent state visits include the president of South Korea, Her Excellency Park Geun-hye.

A state visit is the highest level of diplomatic recognition between two countries in a bilateral relationship.

The key difference between an inward state visit to the UK and other routine official visits, is the direct involvement of the Queen and other members of the Royal Family, and the ceremonial elements that are always integral to these programmes.

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