President Higgins to address Houses of Parliament during British state visit

Higgins given rare honour of addressing House of Commons and House of Lords

President Michael D Higgins launching a tapestry exhibition in Liberty Hall in Dublin yesterday. Photograph:  Stephen Collins/Collins Photos

President Michael D Higgins launching a tapestry exhibition in Liberty Hall in Dublin yesterday. Photograph: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos

Tue, Nov 19, 2013, 01:00

President Michael D Higgins is set to give a joint address to the House of Commons and the House of Lords, a rarely accorded honour, during next year’s historic state visit to Britain.

Planning for the three-day visit in April is at an early stage, but it is already clear that Buckingham Palace is keen to ensure the welcome matches that received by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip during their visit to Ireland in 2011.

The decision to host Mr Higgins and his wife Sabina at Windsor Castle is seen as a particular mark of favour. “Only fellow royals and Ronald Reagan get to stay there. It’s a more intimate setting,” one British source told The Irish Times last night.

Buckingham Palace is liaising closely with 10 Downing Street and the Foreign Office. The British side is keen to ensure that the contribution made by the Irish in Britain is reflected significantly during the visit which is the first to Britain by an Irish president to be accorded “state” status.

State banquet
Mr Higgins will be honoured at a state banquet in Windsor Castle and at a lord mayor’s banquet in the Guildhall in the City of London, where he is expected to focus on commercial and business links between the two countries.

The visit is unlikely to dominate media coverage in Britain in the same way as the queen’s visit to the Republic did two years ago. However it is expected to attract substantially greater coverage than visits by other world leaders.

Reflecting the progress over two decades, former president Mary Robinson said there had been controversy about her title when she went to meet Queen Elizabeth in Buckingham Palace in 1993.

“The British did not want to use President of Ireland so there were various versions . . . [including] President Mary Robinson of Ireland,” she told RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland programme.

News of President Higgins’s visit has been welcomed by the Irish in Britain organisation, formerly the Federation of Irish Societies, which said it “reflects the warmth and strengthened ties between the two countries.

“During these difficult times, the economic relationship is important to both Britain and Ireland but more than this, the visit consolidates the healing of the past and a focus on the future,” the organisation’s chief executive Jennie McShannon said.

Irish diaspora
Besides economic matters, she hoped also for a focus on the contribution of the Irish diaspora, the need for both governments to support the Northern Ireland peace process and “the wellbeing of the most vulnerable Irish in Britain”.

The London Irish Centre in Camden, which hosted President Higgins’s first international visit in office in February 2012, said it was “very pleased” that the “much anticipated” state visit had been confirmed.