Higgins: Wrong to wipe the slate clean

President Michael D Higgins began an official state visit to Britain yesterday with the head of state heralding a new era of relations between the two countries.

Higgins: Wrong to wipe the slate clean

His extended four-day trip, three years after Queen Elizabeth visited Ireland, will include an address to the Houses of Parliament and a focus on the contribution Irish emigrants have made to British life.

On his departure, Mr Higgins said the trip — the first ever by Ireland’s head of state — was about remembering the past but also examining the capacity of the present and what can be done in the future to cement relations.

“We are at a very interesting point in history, when we have, following Her Majesty’s visit to Ireland, such good relations between our people,” he said.

“My hope for the visit at the end of it all is that people will in ever more numbers come to share in experiencing the history, the present circumstances and culture...”

The theme of the state visit will be on the two countries’ shared histories.

And the significance has been further deepened with the presence of Northern Ireland deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness, who will attend a banquet hosted by Queen Elizabeth — a move unthinkable only a decade ago.

Despite massive media interest in Ireland, it is hoped the occasion will not be overshadowed by royals on the other side of the world, with Prince George threatening to steal the limelight Down Under as he is on tour with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge for the first time.

Mr Higgins — who is accompanied by his wife Sabina — addressed the Northern Ireland peace process before he left amid wider discussions about how to deal with the past.

He said it would be wrong to wipe the slate clean over historic conflict which affected relations between Britain and Ireland and that progress should not be about forgetting the past.

“The peace process is that, it is a process that comes after the formal agreement at one level. Ultimately it is an exercise in consciousness at the level of community,” Mr Higgins said.

“The challenge is to hand to a future generation all of the prospects of the future. You are not inviting them to an amnesia about any deep dispute.

“There are a lot of very difficult memories and it would be to my mind wrong to suggest to anyone that you should as it were, wipe the slate clean.

“I think Her Majesty in coming to Ireland and addressing for example issues of relations between our two people was doing it the right way.”

The highly successful state visit to Ireland by the Queen and the Duke ofEdinburgh in May 2011 paved the way for the return by Mr Higgins and makes the attendance of Mr McGuinness at the royals’ home, Windsor Castle, the latest in a series of recent milestones in Anglo-Irish relations.

Although Mr Higgins has travelled to events in London, Manchester, Liverpool, and Scotland last year, these were not official visits.

Mr Higgins will spend four days on the extended visit as a guest of the monarch, a sign he says is symbolic of the importance both countries place on the normalisation of relations more than 90 years after independence.

Despite the feelgood factor around the trip in general, there is discomfort in some staunch conservative circles about Mr McGuinness’s presence. Efforts to cement reconciliation between republicans and the state took a massive leap forward when the senior Sinn Féin figure shook hands with the Queen during a trip to Belfast two years ago.

He was given the green light to join the latest celebrations after a meeting ofthe leadership of his party at the weekend even though they snubbed the royal visit to Ireland in 2011.

Highlights of the visit, which begins with a ceremonial arrival at Windsor Castle, will include the President’s address at Westminster — another first for an Irish head of state.

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