President to visit Queen in first State visit to the UK
The President and Mrs Higgins will stay in Windsor Castle
President Michael D Higgins will follow in the footsepts of US president Ronald Reagan, and his wife, Nancy, who also stayed s in Windsor during their visit in June 1982. Photograph: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
President Michael D Higgins has been no stranger to Britain since his election, visiting five times so far. However, a visit between April 8th and 10th next year will be of a different order of magnitude.
The declaration was made in a brief statement last evening by Buckingham Palace, saying only that the President, and his wife, Sabina had accepted an invitation – a return courtesy on the back of the Queen’s own 2011 visit to Ireland.
“This is the first State visit to the United Kingdom by a President of Ireland,” the Palace statement noted, in words that captured a century of politics.
First State visit
The three-day visit will not, of course, mark the first meetings of the Queen and Irish presidents in London, since Mary Robinson did so in 1993 and Mary McAleese later, but it will be the first to be accorded the rank of State visit – with all of the attendant diplomatic protocol.
The President and Mrs Higgins will stay in Windsor Castle, rather than Buckingham Palace – a mark of especial favour in the protocol-ruled world of diplomacy and royalty.
The Irish head of State will follow in the footsteps of US president, Ronald Reagan, and his wife, Nancy, who also stayed in Windsor during their visit in June 1982.
For now, no formal details about the visit have been released, but State visits are carefully plotted – but always topped by State banquet.
State visits, if not unusual, are nevertheless not common in London.
The President of South Korea Park Geun-hye was received with full honours during one between November 5th and 7th.
However, the return visit by an Irish head of state is unusual because of its speed. The Korean visit, for example, came on the back of a visit by the Queen and Prince Philip 14 years ago at the invitation of President Kim Dae-jung .
Few diplomatic events cut through the diplomatic chatter to reach the public at large, but Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Ireland in 2011 did, if more so in Ireland than in Britain.
Opening her speech in Dublin Castle, Queen Elizabeth, who had already bowed her head at the Garden of Remembrance to the Easter Rising leaders, declared to President Mary McAleese: “A hUachtaráin agus a cháirde.”
Two years on, the success of those days in May in 2011 are still mentioned frequently. Privately, Her Majesty regards it as the most significant of her trips in 60 years on the throne.
Equally, it has been mentioned before every Irish audience – usually around St Patrick’ Day – encountered by British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Foreign Secretary William Hague, an historian of note, has spoken, even a little emotionally, of the impact the State banquet in Dublin Castle had made upon him.
President Higgins will be received at No. 10 Downing Street and, later, by the Leader of the Opposition, Labour leader, Mr Ed Miliband.
Iconic images, such as the Queen’s words in Irish, or her presence at the Garden of Remembrance, may be harder to find, but found they will have to be.
In her speech two years ago, the Queen spoke of how relations between the two countries had suffered “more than their fair share of heartache, turbulence and loss” through the centuries.
“To those who have suffered as a consequence of our troubled past, I extend my sincere thoughts and deep sympathy. With the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things that we would wish had been done differently or not at all,” she then declared.
The visit, perhaps, will mean more to many of the Irish living in Britain, than those living in Ireland, but it offers an opportunity to emphasise the contribution they have made.
Meanwhile, it can be expected that there will be visits to Irish community centres – ones that Mr Higgins visited each Christmas during his days as a TD. In other State visits, the visiting head of state has spoken at an official dinner hosted by the Lord Mayor of the City of London – which can be expected to happen again next April. Two years ago, broadcaster, Gay Byrne introduced The Chieftains and others at a cultural evening hosted by the British Embassy. A job, perhaps, on the return leg for Terry Wogan.