'This visit is a stepping stone to an even closer future relationship'


For Ireland and the United Kingdom, the visit marks not only a milestone in a peace process but a beginning too, write EAMON GILMOREand WILLIAM HAGUE

QUEEN ELIZABETH II and the Duke of Edinburgh will today begin a State visit to Ireland.

It is a historic event in relations between Ireland and the United Kingdom – the first such visit since Irish independence in 1921 changed political relations on these islands.

It is fitting that it is taking place before the end of the term in office of President Mary McAleese. The President, the first to have been born in Northern Ireland, has made “building bridges” the theme of her presidency. While the two heads of state have already met each other on several occasions, this visit is special – a reflection of the transformed bilateral relationship.

It will celebrate the depth and warmth of our relations. More than six million people in the UK are Irish or have an Irish parent or grandparent.

British and Irish history is inescapably entwined. For too long, however, relations between our nations were marked by conflict and division, by mistrust and suspicion. But today we are proud to be friends and neighbours, partners and equals.

The Northern Ireland peace process, founded on the principle of mutual respect, has been critical, both to the partnership we enjoy today and to the process of reconciliation between our peoples.

That work has been under way for over a quarter of a century. It continues today. Reconciliation is painstaking work. The Belfast Agreement, reached on Good Friday 1998, which included the devolution of power to Northern Ireland and the establishment of frameworks for relations on the island of Ireland and between Britain and Ireland, marked a turning point.

Last week we saw yet another historic milestone reached quietly as elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly produced a strong mandate from the people of Northern Ireland to continue to consolidate peace and stability.

This shared history is fundamental to our relationship. We should not gloss over the past. During the visit, in recognition of this shared history, the Queen will pay tribute to the foundation of the Irish State at the Garden of Remembrance and attend a ceremony to commemorate the Irish who died in the first World War. These elements speak to our shared history.

For Ireland and the United Kingdom, the visit marks not only a milestone in a peace process but a beginning too. Only now can we begin to realise the full potential inherent in relations between our states.

We have so much in common already. Commercial and cultural links are stronger than ever. Trade and tourism between our two countries is an important contributor to both our economies. Every week about £1 billion in trade takes place between our two countries, while approximately three million visitors travel each year from the UK to Ireland and a similar number of Irish visit the UK.

The Queen herself will enjoy some of Ireland’s attractions with visits to the Book of Kells at Trinity College and to the Rock of Cashel in Co Tipperary.

We work closely together on some of the great challenges of our time. The economic and financial turmoil of the past few years have demonstrated the importance of decisive government action to improve prosperity and promote growth and jobs: an agenda that we are determined to push at European Union level.

Meanwhile, we share a commitment to promoting international development and conflict resolution. Our extraordinary progress in establishing peace in Northern Ireland, notwithstanding the actions of a tiny minority, is a positive message for those engaged in the patient work of peace building in so many regions of the world today.

Economic, political and cultural ties already connect us more closely than at any time in our recent history. This visit is a stepping stone to an even closer future relationship of co-operation, trust and friendship between the peoples of our islands.

Eamon Gilmore TD is Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. William Hague MP is British secretary of state for foreign and Commonwealth affairs

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