London’s man in Dublin not immune to excitement
The UK’s ambassador expects the visit to be an occasion to remember
Dominick Chilcott, British Ambassador to Ireland
The State visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Ireland three years ago garnered no small amount of media attention here. Although President Michael D Higgins’s return visit next week is unlikely to create the same flurry of coverage in the British press, the United Kingdom’s ambassador to Ireland expects the occasion to be a bigger deal than usual.
“Working with the palace and with the Áras in preparing for this visit you can’t help but note that both sides want to make this visit feel very special,” Dominic Chilcott says.
“The fact of the reception last week in Buckingham Palace [to honour the Irish community in Britain], which is not at all normal as a run-up to a state visit, shows that the Queen and the royal family and the royal household are really going to pull out all the stops. People in Britain will notice that.”
He says the fact that millions of people living in the UK claim a direct, ancestral or emotional tie to Ireland will certainly add a heightened sense of significance to the visit.
“I think for the Irish community and again those people of Irish descent who live in Britain, having the President over and being given the red carpet treatment, as a state visit does, with all the ceremony and the pomp and respect that comes with it, that will mean an awful lot to them,” Chilcott adds.
President Higgins and his wife Sabina’s four-day trip comes at a time when relations between the two countries are “in a stronger and more settled state of affairs than they have ever been,” Chilcott says. For him, Queen Elizabeth’s visit here in 2011 “transformed the public sentiment in both countries and I think allowed people to be uninhibitedly positive about British-Irish relations”.
He adds: “What President Higgins’s visit will be able to do that the queen’s visit couldn’t is celebrate the role of the Irish community and people of Irish descent who live in Britain and who have contributed over the years to all walks of life in Britain.”
Although the previous two Irish presidents, Mary McAleese and Mary Robinson, as well the current one, have all previously travelled to Britain on official visits, Chilcott says there is “something very special” about a state visit. “It’s a conscious choice of the two countries to celebrate what we have in common and to hold up in lights the modern relationship that we have.”
It is, he says, the highest form of engagement one country can have with another. “So there’s a lot of contact with the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, the royal family. There’s contact with the government at the highest level, the prime minister, there’s contact with the foreign secretary, with the leaders of the other major political parties and then there is a big moment also in the City of London.”
A career diplomat for some 30 years, Chilcott says state visits tend to make “a very big impression” on the visitor and do “a lot of good” for relations.
He adds that the pleasure the President’s hosts will have in receiving him and his wife “will do the world of good for British-Irish relations. It will give them a great boost.”
For his own part, Chilcott is looking forward to the occasion, which he says is steeped in centuries of ceremony and tradition.
“There is some magic about being involved in events which involve heads of state. So being in the presence of the Irish President and the British Queen, I think it’s going to be marvellous.”