President Michael D Higgins has arrived in London for the first ever State visit to Britain by an Irish president.
Mr Higgins and his wife Sabina touched down at Heathrow Airport this evening shortly after 5pm, where members of the Queen's Colour Squadron of the Royal Air Force were awaiting their arrival on the airport apron.
Mr and Mrs Higgins, who were accompanied by the Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore and his wife Carol Hanney, were greeted at the foot of the plane's steps by Ireland's Ambassador to Britain Daniel Mulhall, and his wife Greta.
They then proceeded down a red carpet lined by the RAF men and on into the airport’s Royal Suite.
Inside, the Irish party was introduced to The Viscount Hood, who was representing Queen Elizabeth II, and Sir David Brewer, the Queen's lord lieutenant of Greater London.
They were also introduced to Nicholas Jarrold, the special representative of the secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs, the commissioner of London's Metropolitan Police Service Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, and Heathrow Airport duty manager Lee Ribolla.
The presidential delegation included secretary general to the President Adrian O'Neill, secretary general to the Government Martin Fraser, Department of Foreign Affairs secretary general David Cooney, the President's chief of protocol Orla O'Hanrahan, adviser Liam Herrick and Aide de Camp Col Brendan McAndrew.
At 5.20pm, Mr and Mrs Higgins were driven away from Heathrow in a maroon coloured Bentley, one of two given to the Queen to mark her golden jubilee in 2003, with a police escort. The car was flying an Irish tricolour.
The British monarchy’s official twitter account (@Britishmonarchy)announced the President’s arrival with a tweet as Gaeilge.
“Tá Londain bainte amach ag Uachtarán na hÉireann agus ag Bean Uí Uiginn, agus chuir ionadaí na Banríona fáilte rompu #Fáilte #CuairtStáit,” it announced at 5.45pm.
It wasn’t the first time the British monarchy’s account tweeted in Irish having previously announced details of Mr Higgins’s visit on March 25th (with Sonraí na Cuairte Stáit deimhnithe ag Pálás Buckingham, chéad chuairt ar an Ríocht Aontaithe ag Uachtarán ar Éirinn).
Today’s tweet was positively received and was retweeted 400 times and marked as favourite 195 times within a short time. It also triggered an interesting stream of comments both from followers of @Britishmonarchy and those with an interest in Irish.
Mr and Mrs Higgins will spend the first night of the visit in The Doyle Kensington Hotel before travelling to Windsor Castle tomorrow morning, where they will be formally greeted by Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh.
The four will travel together by horse-drawn carriage for a ceremonial welcome at Windsor Castle.
Prior to departing for Windsor, Mr and Mrs Higgins will meet the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall at the Irish Embassy at Grosvenor Place.
Later in the day, Mr and Mrs Higgins will visit Westminster Abbey and the Palace of Westminster, where the President will make an address, before returning to Windsor for a meeting with Labour leader Ed Miliband and a state banquet.
Mr Higgins will on Wednesday visit University College Hospital London, the Royal Society and 10 Downing Street, to meet prime minister David Cameron.
Other engagements include a visit to the Park House Stables in Newbury, a tour of Coventry Cathedral, a concert at the Royal Albert Hall and a visit to the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Taoisesch Enda Kenny will be present for some of the events tomorrow. He returns to Ireland on Wednesday for scheduled business but travels to Britain for the remainder of the state visit on Thursday.
As Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Gilmore will be the accompanying Minister for the duration of the visit.
The Tánaiste will also meet foreign secretary William Hague for discussions on issues of international concern.
Mr and Ms Higgins departed Casement Aerodome in Baldonnel, Dublin on board an Air Corps Gulfstream aircraft earlier today.
Prior to leaving, Mr Higgins said he hoped the visit would be the first of many and that these would become more frequent and “relaxed”.
He stressed the importance for both Britain and Ireland to engage with shared history “and to be able to do so in a way that allows us all the capacities of the present to be yielded up.”
“We are at a very interesting point in history where we have, following Her Majesty’s visit in particular, such good relations between our people. My hope for the visit is that, at the end of it all, people will in more numbers come to share each other’s experiences, history and present circumstances, and culture. We have so many shared experiences already in every area of life.”
The President said he was looking forward to engaging with the Irish community in Britain. He stressed the importance of a recent reception, hosted by the queen, for the members of the Irish community in Britain.
He spoke of the importance of sporting and cultural links, but he also stressed economic relations emphasising the centrality of the UK as a trading partner.
“We export half of what we produce,” he said, “and 40 per cent of that goes to our nearest neighbours.”
“But beyond present economic opportunity it is the capacity to be able to engage with a long history ... and to look at what we can do together sharing a language as we do.”
Looking to his packed itinerary over the next four days, President Higgins said he could not single out any one engagement, but citing the emigration of half of his wider family to Britain after the 1950s, he said the meeting with the Irish community in Coventry would be of particular note.
“[THE SCHEDULE ] is packed full of great opportunities. It’s obviously very significant to be the first head of state to have an opportunity to make this state visit and to speak to the Commons and Lords.”
He said it was important for him to address the future economic direction of the two countries and what he called the "issues we will share in restructuring the global economy which I will address in Guildhall" in the City of London.
The President praised his British hosts for helping to draw up his programme for the four days.
“[THEY] were very anxious to put in additional events,” he said and he expressed appreciation that the visit was extended from three to four days.
The Irish and the British are close, he said. But he hoped the two would grow closer still. He referred to the “extraordinary reception” given the queen when she visited the Republic three years ago, adding: “I think the reason for that were both the words chosen and the symbolism with which they were delivered.”
He spoke of the “generosity and sensitivity” shown by the queen to what he called “present issues”.
He hoped his visit would contribute to “and enduring, deepening peace process and ever greater co-operation” between the British and Ireland.