She said President Higgins will carry the “symbolic hopes and dreams” of Irish people and emigrant communities who had “suffered greatly” and were under suspicion in Britain for years.
Although this week’s visit is the first state visit to Britain by an Irish head of state, Mrs Robinson made the trip on a number of occasions during her presidency, meeting Queen Elizabeth once.
She said she was “the first president to do anything in Britain, other than fly through or visit relations very privately, that was not a normal relationship”.
Mrs Robinson said there was still a distance to travel to create “full normalisation” of relations between the countries. “The fact that we are neighbouring islands and the first state visit is by a president in 2014 shows that there was more normalising to be done,” she said.
Mrs Robinson said that when she ran for office and during her presidency from 1990 to 1997, she made a point of reaching out to Irish emigrants in Britain “because I was concerned about the fact that we had put them out of our houses and out of our minds”.
She said: “I felt a strong sense of justice and equality that the Irish had suffered greatly — but because of the violence in the North that was still continuing, the Irish were under a lot of suspicion. I think the visits lifted the profile.”
Mrs Robinson recalled that “when the Queen sent a formal invitation to have afternoon tea”, it was “an incredible breakthrough” in relations between the countries.
“Even then, the Queen said at that stage that it was very possible to visit Ireland and it was my hope that it would be the case but neither of us thought it would be very soon because there wasn’t even a peace process at the time.”
Mrs Robinson visited in 1996, at the invitation of John Major: “It was requested that I inspect the Irish Guards in Irish. Having the Irish national anthem played in the grounds of Buckingham Palace was a very special moment,” she said.
She had expected “some resentment” for the visits from the Irish community in Britain, “but on the contrary, ordinary Irish people [were] very much saying these visits help us enormously”.
The visits helped Irish communities “in terms of feeling less under a cloud, less defensive, and feeling proud, but very strong — it really surprised me.”
Mrs Robinson said the visit of the queen to Ireland in May 2011 was not a “full stop” in terms of repairing relationships.
“The full status is the return visit,” she said, pointing to President Higgins’ trip, which officially begins today.
“I hope it will generate a sense of pride, a sense of strong relationship, and that this will put the full stop in the right place to the two relationships.”
Mrs Robinson also praised the role of other advances — such as cheap flights — for the development of relations.
“I think we all appreciate at a deep level as citizens of Ireland how important the links at all levels,” she said.