The banquet was held at the Queen’s home, Windsor Castle, where the President is staying with his wife Sabina, and was made all the more significant due to the presence of Northern Ireland deputy first minister and former IRA commander Martin McGuinness — a move unthinkable only a decade ago.
The highly successful state visit to Ireland by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh in May 2011 paved the way for the return by President Higgins and made the attendance of Mr McGuinness at the royals’ home, the latest in a series of recent milestones in Anglo-Irish relations.
Just hours before the banquet, the sister of a woman killed in the Birmingham pub bombings called for the arrest of Mr McGuinness.
Julie Hambleton, whose 18-year-old sister Maxine died in the atrocity, was taking part in a small demonstration outside Windsor Castle calling for justice for the victims of the bombings.
Ms Hambleton expressed anger at the British establishment for giving “permission” to Mr McGuinness to “come on to the mainland”, adding: “By rights he should be arrested. He’s got so much blood on his hands.” She described his attendance at the event as “the epitome of hypocrisy”.
Mr McGuinness was seated next to president of the Royal Society, Paul Nurse and director of Liberty Shami Chakrabarti.
The Queen wore the official diamond jubilee white silk and lace dress designed by Angela Kelly, and the Grand Duchess Vladimir of Russia Tiara with emerald droplets.
In the splendour of St George’s Hall, Hollywood stars Day-Lewis and Judi Dench, rugby legend Brian O’Driscoll and his actress wife Amy Huberman, hat designer Philip Treacy, sculptor Antony Gormley, and Terry Wogan sat around a polished table set for 160 guests.
The Queen sat to the left of President Higgins and the Duchess of Cornwall sat on his right hand side. Prime minister David Cameron and his wife Samantha, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg and Labour leader Ed Miliband were also in attendance, with the first minister of Northern Ireland Peter Robinson, Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers.
Other members of the royal family at the banquet included the Prince of Wales who was seated next to President Higgins’s wife Sabina, and the Duke of Edinburgh who sat on her other side.
Former Irish president Mary McAleese was also in attendance.
At the end of his speech, President Higgins invited guests to stand and join him in a toast to the health and happiness of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh and the people of the United Kingdom.
Mr McGuinness stood up and participated in the toast as the orchestra played ‘God Save The Queen’.