LONDON – Amid regal pomp at Queen Elizabeth II’s Windsor Castle home, the Irish president and the British monarch have begun Ireland’s first state visit to Britain with expressions of mutual affection and respect — and a shared determination to consign national hatreds to a sorrow-tinged past.
President Michael D. Higgins, Ireland’s elfin head of state, was guest of honor at a royal banquet that brought together former enemies in Northern Ireland and leading politicians and celebrities of Britain and Ireland, including Judi Dench and Daniel Day-Lewis. Gathered together at one massive 160-seat table, they heard the queen and Higgins pledge to lead their nations into a new era of friendship.
Higgins’ trip — his country’s first state visit to Britain since Ireland won independence nearly a century ago — underscores how much the success of Northern Ireland peacemaking has transformed wider relations between the two longtime adversaries since the 1990s, when Irish Republican Army car bombs were still detonating in London.
It comes three years after the queen, defying threats from IRA splinter groups still seeking to wreck the peace, made her own inaugural visit to the Republic of Ireland. The last time a British monarch visited was in 1911, when all of Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom.
As she toasted the health of the Irish nation, Elizabeth said she had loved her Irish visit and found it “even more pleasing since then that we, the Irish and British, are becoming good and dependable neighbors and better friends, finally shedding our inhibitions about seeing the best in each other.”
The queen managed a rare joke as she lauded the role of Irish immigrants in Britain’s public, academic and cultural life. She recalled her own surprise role in the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, when she performed in a film alongside James Bond star Daniel Craig — before a stuntman dressed as the monarch parachuted live into the stadium.
“It took someone of Irish descent, Danny Boyle, to get me to jump from a helicopter,” she said to laughter, referring to the show’s director.
More significantly, the queen criticized how Irish immigrants to Britain used to experience “discrimination and a lack of appreciation.” She said a peaceful future would require Britain and Ireland to be “respectful of each other’s nationhood, sovereignty and traditions, cooperating to our mutual benefit, at ease in each other’s company. After so much checkered history, the regrettable pain of which is still felt by many of us, this goal is now within reach.”
She signaled her intention to return to Ireland for the 100th anniversary commemorations of its Easter Rising, a short-lived 1916 Dublin rebellion that inspired Ireland’s later war of independence.
Even a few years ago, the idea of British royals attending celebrations of one of the most anti-British events in Irish history would have seemed farcical, if not dangerous. Not now.
“My family and my government will stand alongside you, Mr. President, and your ministers, throughout the anniversaries . . . of the events that led to the creation of the Irish Free State,” she said, using the original name of what became the Republic of Ireland.
Earlier Tuesday, Higgins delivered the first speech by an Irish president to the joint Houses of Parliament, where he declared that both nations had attained “a closeness and warmth that once seemed unachievable.”
Previous Irish presidents toured England and met the queen in several official trips since 1993 as part of early peacemaking efforts. But a formal state visit with full honors had been repeatedly postponed because of security and diplomatic sensitivities.
Higgins, a left-wing politician, poet and human rights activist who was elected to the ceremonial post in 2011, said the two nations’ relationship had gone “from the doubting eyes of estrangement to the trusting eyes of partnership and, in recent years, to the welcoming eyes of friendship.”
“Our two countries can take immense pride in the progress of the cause of peace in Northern Ireland,” he said. “There is of course still a road to be traveled, the road of a lasting and creative reconciliation.”
When Higgins arrived at Windsor Castle, a military band played Ireland’s martial national anthem, “The Soldier’s Song,” as the queen and her husband Prince Philip welcomed the president and his wife, Sabina, into the castle quadrangle. Outside, Irish tricolors and Union Jacks lined the streets of Windsor for the start of Higgins’ four-day tour of England.
Also taking part in royal events for the first time is Martin McGuinness, once a senior IRA commander, now deputy leader of Northern Ireland’s unity government. He boycotted the queen’s 2011 visit to Ireland.
Before Tuesday’s banquet, McGuinness chatted animatedly with the prime ministers of Britain and Ireland, David Cameron and Enda Kenny, but was not seen to exchange any words with the queen.
More than 3,600 people were killed during the four-decade conflict over Northern Ireland. The main faction of the IRA killed nearly 1,800 people — among them the queen’s cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten —during its failed effort to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom. Experts say McGuinness was the IRA’s chief of staff when the group assassinated Mountbatten in 1979.
Higgins paid silent tribute to Mountbatten, as well as to Britain’s dead from the two world wars, during a tour of Westminster Abbey, where a plaque on the abbey floor honors Mountbatten, a World War II hero who was Britain’s last viceroy to India. The 79-year-old shunned personal security when holidaying in the Republic of Ireland; an IRA remote-control bomb killed him, two teenage boys and an 83-year-old woman.
For all its symbolism of reconciliation, the queen’s banquet invitation for McGuinness dismayed some IRA victims.
Stephen Gault, whose father was one of 11 Protestant civilians killed in an IRA bombing in 1987, said it was “another nail in the coffin of the innocent victims of terrorism.”
Gault told the BBC he “would like to see Mr. McGuinness behind bars for his crimes.”
“Yes, we all want peace, but peace at what cost? It’s been a dirty peace so far,” he said.