8 Apr 2014

A new era of friendship’: Higgins makes historic UK speech

Irish President Michael D Higgins hails “a new era of friendship” between Britain and Ireland after a period of doubt in an historic speech at Westminster.

In the address to the houses of parliament – the first time Ireland’s head of state has been given the honour – Mr Higgins said the two countries now have a closeness that once seemed unachievable.

The significance of the president’s speech is further deepened by the invitation for him to stay at the Queen’s home, Windsor Castle, where a state banquet is being held in his honour on Tuesday night and the presence of Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness at the royal dinner.

At the banquet, the Queen said that Britain and Ireland shall “no longer allow our past to ensnare our future”. Mr McGuinness joined in a toast to the Queen, the duke of Edinburgh and the people of the UK to the sounds of an orchestra playing God Save the Queen.

‘Warm friendship’

In his speech, President Higgins said Britain and Ireland must take pride in the peace that has been built in Northern Ireland.

“I am conscious that I am in the company here of many distinguished parliamentarians who have made their own individual contributions to the journey we have travelled together,” he said.

“I acknowledge them and I salute them, as I acknowledge and salute all those who have selflessly worked to build concord between our peoples. I celebrate our warm friendship and I look forward with confidence to a future in which that friendship can grow even more resolute and more productive.”

President Higgins touched on many of the themes which his four-day official state visit to Britain will explore, including emigration and shared history.

Windsor Castle

Earlier, he and his wife Sabina met the Queen at Windsor Castle in Windsor.

After two separate gun salutes, the monarch and president travelled through the streets of Windsor, which were decked out in union flags and Irish tricolours, before heading to the castle.

The president, who is a poet, academic, intellectual, human rights activist and football fan, then presented a new ceremonial red coat to the Irish Guards.

During her speech, which was made in front of the political elite and stars including Daniel Day-Lewis, Dame Judi Dench and Irish rugby star Brian O’Driscoll, the Queen said that “we…should live together as neighbours and friends. Respectful of each other’s nationhood, sovereignty and traditions. Cooperating to our mutual benefit. At ease in each other’s company. After so much chequered history, the aviodable and regrettable pain of which is still felt by many of us, this goal is now within reach.”

The Queen also joked about her character’s appearance at the London 2012 Olympic Games. “It took someone of Irish descent, Danny Boyle, to get me to jump from a helicopter,” she said.