McGuinness says presence at state visit ‘a challenge’

NI deputy First Minister will attend UK event for President Michael D Higgins as a representative of ‘all the people’ of the North

President Michael D Higgins’s state visitto Britain begins on Tuesday. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

President Michael D Higgins’s state visitto Britain begins on Tuesday. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Sun, Apr 6, 2014, 15:14

The decision by Northern Ireland’s deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness to attend events marking the state visit of President Michael D Higgins to Britain “is significant and involves political and symbolic challenges for Irish republicans”, he has said.

Mr McGuinness said today his attendance next week marked “another significant step” in a process of transition but he reiterated that a united Ireland continued to be the “primary objective” of his political life.

Mr McGuinness said he would attend the events “as a representative of all of the people of the North, and in the context of conflict resolution and of building reconciliation among the people of Ireland, and between the people of Ireland and the people of Britain”.

Mr McGuinness did not attend the banquet held for the queen during her visit to Dublin in 2011.

“However, my presence alongside [First Minister] Peter Robinson brings an all-island dimension to this historic event which, it is worth noting, has taken all of 93 years to happen,” he added.

“As the record of the peace process demonstrates, Irish republicans have always been prepared to take decisions and risks for peace and reconciliation.

“I am an Irish republican. A united Ireland has been, and continues to be, the primary objective of my political life.

“ I want to see an end to partition and unity of the Irish people through a genuine process of reconciliation based on equality and tolerance.

“I want an Ireland in which one can be British or Irish and live in harmony and mutual respect with their neighbours. There is now a peaceful and democratic way to achieve this.”

Mr McGuinness said there had been “huge and positive political changes in recent years”.

“ There is now a clear process of transition ongoing within the island of Ireland and between Ireland, including the North, and Britain.

“I firmly believe that my attendance marks another significant step. It is not an end to the process of building a new relationship based upon equality but is important part of that journey.”

The four-day visit by the President begins on Tuesday.

Earlier, Taoiseach Enda Kenny welcomed the decision by Mr McGuinness to attend the state banquet at Windsor Castle during next week’s visit.

“This is all part of the building of relationships between the two countries and peoples on both side of a divide. He’s an elected member of the executive services, Deputy First Minister. We’ve got to move on and not be blocked by the past,” he said.

Speaking on BBC’s The Andrew Marr show, Mr Kenny said: “Symbolically, it’s of enormous importance, but also practically in that it brings the relationship between the two countries and the two peoples to an unprecedented level.”

“This was unthinkable 20 years ago and it’s happening next week. So, it’s of enormous significance ... for the efforts Her Majesty made when she came here on her royal visit and on the participation and, indeed, excitement of the Irish people living throughout Britain.”

Separately, the President said his British hosts had added events to his itinerary to honour the Irish community in Britain.

“I hope that the end result will be that we will visit each other with hospitality in the years to come,” he said last night after receiving the industry award at the Irish Film and Television Awards (IFTAs).

Mr Higgins said he had been “very moved” by the recent Buckingham Palace reception for the Irish in Britain.

“This is really the opening of a whole new chapter in our relationship so that we will be able to get on with what we are all best at.”

Mr Higgins received a standing ovation at last night’s event and some of the biggest names in the industry, including film directors Jim Sheridan and Neil Jordan, paid tribute to his role in restarting the Irish Film Board when he was minister for the arts.

A video tribute was also provided by actor Mel Gibson who made Braveheart in Ireland when President Higgins was in government.