UK & World News

  • 9 April 2014, 1:28

Ireland And Britain Have A 'Fresh Canvas'

Ireland's President has hailed progress in relations with Britain, telling members of both Houses of Parliament the two countries have a "fresh canvas to sketch out our shared hopes" after centuries of fraught ties.

Michael D Higgins - a veteran left-wing politician, poet and human rights activist - said it was impossible to "wipe the slate clean" about the past, but relations between the two countries were warm.

It was a turn of events Ireland's ninth president acknowledged had once seemed "unachievable".

Mr Higgins' address at Westminster is a first for an Irish head of state.

He is currently at Windsor Castle for a state banquet hosted by the Queen.

Her Majesty told those gathered: "We shall no longer allow our past to ensnare our future."

The Queen added that the goal of living together as "neighbours and friends" is within reach after "so much chequered history" and "avoidable and regrettable pain".

Echoing those words, Mr Higgins said: "The shadow of the past has become the shelter of the present". 

The guest list includes the British Prime Minister David Cameron, Irish PM Enda Kenny, Northern Ireland's First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

It will be the second time the Queen has shaken hands with Sinn Fein's Mr McGuinness, a former Irish Republican Army leader who played a key role in the Troubles - decades of sectarian violence between Protestants and Catholics.

In a wide-ranging speech, Mr Higgins acknowledged this troubled past, but hailed the transformation of relations between the two countries, which have steadily improved since the Good Friday peace agreement in 1998.

Ties were now "strong and resolute", the president said, adding: "Formidable flows of trade and investment across the Irish Sea confer mutual benefit on our two countries.

"In tourism, sport and culture, our people to people connections have never been as close or abundant."

The two nations should take "immense pride" in the peace that has been built in Northern Ireland, he said.

"There is of course still a road to be travelled - the road of a lasting and creative reconciliation - and our two governments have a shared responsibility to encourage and support those who need to complete the journey of making peace permanent and constructive."

The 72-year-old president laid a wreath at the Grave of the Unknown Soldier at Westminster Abbey before his speech.

Earlier in the day, Mr Higgins and his wife Sabina met Her Majesty and the Duke of Edinburgh at Windsor Castle.

The couple travelled to Windsor with Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall who had greeted the visitors at the Irish Embassy in London.

The two heads of state have already met informally, but President Higgins' official welcome includes all the traditional pomp and circumstance.

He took part in a ceremonial carriage procession through the streets of Windsor which were decked out in Union flags and Irish tricolours.

After the guests were honoured with two separate gun salutes, the Queen and president entered the castle in the Australian State Coach, before Mr Higgins and Prince Philip inspected troops.

Major Andrew Seddon, captain of the Queen's Company Grenadier Guards, invited Mr Higgins to inspect the guard of honour, speaking to him in Irish.

Mr Higgins presented a new ceremonial red coat to the regimental mascot, an Irish wolfhound called Domhnall of Shantamon.

The historic visit comes three years after the Queen became the first British monarch to visit the Republic of Ireland.

Irish Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore said: "We are very close, respectful neighbours and I think the relationship we are building and working on is one that, given our very complex history, many people throughout the world will be able to draw some inspiration from."

The Queen spoke in Irish and commemorated those who had fought for freedom during her ground-breaking tour.

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