Higgins: ‘Wrong to forget Anglo-Irish conflict’

IRISH president Michael D Higgins has said it would be wrong to wipe the slate clean over historic conflict which affected relations between Britain and Ireland.
President Michael D. Higgins will be the first ever Irish head of state to officially visit the UK Picture: PAPresident Michael D. Higgins will be the first ever Irish head of state to officially visit the UK Picture: PA
President Michael D. Higgins will be the first ever Irish head of state to officially visit the UK Picture: PA

On the eve of his official state visit to the UK - the first ever by Ireland’s head of state - Mr Higgins said that progress in the Northern Ireland peace process should not be about forgetting the past.

The significance of the trip has been further deepened with the presence of Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness who will attend a banquet hosted by the Queen - a move unthinkable only a decade ago.

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Mr Higgins will spend four days on the extended visit as a guest of the monarch, a sign he says is symbolic of the importance both countries place on the normalisation of relations more than 90 years after independence.

“The peace process is that, it is a process that comes after the formal agreement at one level. Ultimately it is an exercise in consciousness at the level of community,” President Higgins said.

“The challenge is to hand to a future generation all of the prospects of the future. You are not inviting them to an amnesia about any deep dispute.

“There are a lot of very difficult memories and it would be to my mind wrong to suggest to anyone that you should as it were, wipe the slate clean.

“I think Her Majesty in coming to Ireland and addressing for example issues of relations between our two people was doing it the right way.”

The highly successful state visit to Ireland by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh in May 2011 paved the way for the return by President Higgins and makes the attendance of Mr McGuinness at the royals’ home, Windsor Castle, the latest a series of recent milestones in Anglo-Irish relations.

In remarkable scenes, the Queen paid her respects to republican dead at Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance, visited Croke Park - site of the 1920 massacre - and made a widely-praised speech on Anglo-Irish history at Dublin Castle.

Since then, a number of meetings between Mr Higgins - a former Labour government minister, a poet and academic - and members of the Royal Family have taken place.

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Although the Irish head of state has travelled to events in London, Manchester, Liverpool and Scotland last year, these were not official visits.

Mr McGuinness, who shook hands with the Queen during a trip to Belfast two years ago, was given the green light to join in the celebrations after a meeting of the leadership of his party Sinn Fein at the weekend.

The senior republican and his colleagues had snubbed the ground-breaking royal visit to Ireland in 2011.

Accepting the invitation to a state banquet hosted by the British monarchy he praised the Queen’s role in the peace process.

Highlights of the visit beginning tomorrow will include an address the president will make to both Houses of Parliament - another first for an Irish head of state.

President Higgins has expressed gratitude for the extended visit being invited to stay at the Queen’s home, where he will also get to view the colours of disbanded Irish regiments in the British army.

In an interview with Irish state broadcaster, he praised the royal for setting the scene for the return visit and a new era of Anglo-Irish relations in her speech at Dublin Castle.

“The words chosen and the symbolic way they were delivered by the Queen herself were extraordinarily important,” he said.

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“The decision for example not to ignore the past but to address it, to go on and say as well, not only would things have been done differently but maybe not all, that was adding generosity to a kind of an ethic of memory.”

Mr Higgins said it was an invitation to people to be firm about events in the past but not be crippled by them in the present.

As part of the trip the Queen will stage the traditional state banquet in honour of her guest at Windsor Castle, Mr Higgins and his wife Sabina will visit the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon and he will attend another major dinner at the Guildhall in the City given by the Lord Mayor.

Northern Ireland will be recognised with the Queen hosting a reception for leading figures from Ulster’s cultural, political and business life.

President Higgins will also put Ireland’s story of emigration to the fore in the visit.

He will also meet Prime Minister David Cameron in Downing Street during the visit and pay tribute to the work of Irish health professionals, meet business leaders and London Mayor Boris Johnson.

The President will be joined on the trip by Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Foreign Affairs Minister Eamon Gilmore.