Fine Gael leader says Queen's trip to Ireland 'overdue'
A first visit to the Irish Republic by the Queen has moved a step closer after the man likely to become the country's next prime minister backed the idea.
Enda Kenny, leader of the Fine Gael party, said a royal trip was "overdue".
There is speculation in Dublin that the trip could take place within the next three months.
The last serving British monarch to visit the Irish capital was George V in 1911 - before the Republic gained independence from Britain.
Speculation about the Queen visiting Ireland has been front-page news in Dublin, with the Irish Times reporting that a three-day trip in May is expected.
Ireland is currently in the middle of a general election campaign and, with Fine Gael well ahead in the opinion polls, Mr Kenny is the favourite to become the next prime minister.
He is not taking a victory for granted, with more than two weeks to go before the 25 February poll.
However, he made clear his view on a visit by the Queen in a BBC interview while on the campaign trail in Kilkenny.
"Many members of her family have been frequent visitors to Ireland," he said.
"I actually think that this visit of the Queen would be very warmly received by the vast, vast majority of the Irish people - a declaration, a signature event, of the growing up of two countries and two peoples.
"If the Queen does decide to visit, and I know that negotiations are going on there, I expect she will be exceptionally warmly received by people here in Ireland, and [it] may be long overdue."
The Queen is a regular visitor to Northern Ireland - and recently made her 18th trip - but she has never stepped across the Irish border.
No visit to Dublin has been made by a serving British monarch since Ireland gained independence from Britain.
In the wake of the Bloody Sunday killings in Londonderry in 1972, the British Embassy in Dublin was burnt down.
A trip to Dublin would not win universal approval in Ireland. Sinn Fein are opposed to a royal visit, with party president Gerry Adams saying: "I think it's premature and too soon."
However, the Northern Ireland peace process has transformed Anglo-Irish diplomatic relations. There are also strong economic links, with Ireland being the UK's fifth largest export market.
Every man, woman and child in Ireland spends an average of £3,607 per year on British goods.
The UK recently agreed to put more than £3bn towards the international bail-out fund aimed at rescuing the beleaguered Irish economy.
Asked about the speculation surrounding a trip to Ireland, a Buckingham Palace spokesman said: "The Queen usually goes on two overseas state visits every year - one in the spring, and one in the autumn. Neither has been confirmed yet."
Although the Queen has not travelled across the Irish Sea to Dublin, trips have been made by her son, Prince Charles, and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh.
The Irish president Mary McAleese has met the Queen in London and in Belfast, and is known to favour a meeting in Dublin.
It would be a small journey in geographical terms, but a huge step in Anglo-Irish relations.