Michael D Higgins calls for apology for victims of violence

The BBC's Fergal Keane speaks to Michael D Higgins

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The president of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, has said those who inflicted violence in Northern Ireland should apologise and show more humility about the past.

He was speaking in a BBC interview ahead of his state visit to the UK, which begins on Tuesday.

It is the first such visit since the Republic of Ireland became an independent state.

The visit reciprocates the historic visit to Ireland by the Queen in 2011.

President Higgins said he was looking forward to meeting the Queen and British political figures but also Irish communities in Britain.

Asked if he believed the victims of violence deserved an apology, he replied: "Oh yes, of course I do, on all sides."

The president said that many involved in violence had sought to establish a distance between "versions of themselves and actions they deemed necessary at the time," but they could show a "great deal more" humility.

He was asked if it was possible to have a lasting and meaningful peace without addressing the past.

He said: "No, I think you have to address the past... You can't allow yourself to be crippled by the past. You have to be able to address the past in a way that doesn't cripple you, in the present, or damage you into the future."

Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness shook hands with the Queen for the first time when she visited Belfast's Lyric Theatre in June 2012 Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness shook hands with the Queen for the first time when she visited Belfast's Lyric Theatre in June 2012

He said he could not ask the families of victims to put the past behind them.

Society could not afford to wipe out the memory of violence, he said.

"I think that there is very significant work to do," he said.

"Affecting a kind of amnesia is of no value to you. You are better to honestly deal with the facts that are standing behind you as shadows... we must be of assistance to each other in coming to understand how we get to a new place.

"There is work to be done in communities."

The president said the people of Northern Ireland had a "particular and extraordinary genius" for resolving conflict and were the best people to negotiate how to address the past.

But when they had decided on that they should be strongly supported by what he called "the community of others".

Sectarian divisions

President Higgins' visit takes place at a time when both London and Dublin describe Anglo-Irish relations as being at their best since Irish independence more than 90 years ago.

However, within Northern Ireland, sectarian divisions remain deeply entrenched, something President Higgins acknowledged.

Asked if he believed the peace process was essentially "done and dusted" he replied: "No, I think there is very significant work to do."

His comments came after Sinn Féin confirmed that Martin McGuinness, a former IRA commander, would attend the state banquet as a guest of the Queen.

Sinn Féin boycotted events surrounding the Queen's visit to Ireland.

Mr McGuinness said the day of the gun and bomb was gone. "This is a new civilised era that I hope we can all move into."

He also praised the Queen as a "staunch supporter" of the peace process, saying she had shown leadership in the search for reconciliation.

President Higgins will attend high-profile events in London and will be the first Irish head of state to address both houses of parliament.

He will also travel to Irish communities in Britain and said his visit was "very important for the relationships between the people of Ireland and the UK".

Asked what kind of gift he would bring to the Queen, he replied that it would be "something equine in nature".

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