By staff reporter
In what has been a historic day for British-Irish relations, Michael D. Higgins – on day one of his four-day state visit – has addressed both houses of parliament at the Palace of Westminster.
President Higgins began his address by saying he was honoured “to be the first Irish president to address you in the Palace of Westminster”.
He added: “Long may our two peoples and their parliaments walk together in peace, prosperity and ever closer friendship between Ireland and Britain.
“The ties between us are now strong and resolute. Formidable flows of trade and investment across the Irish Sea confer mutual benefit on our two countries. In tourism, sport and culture, our people to people connections have never been as close or abundant.”
Generations of Irish emigrants, he said, have made their mark on this country: “I’m very proud of the Irish community…which is the living heart of the British-Irish relationship.”
President Higgins acknowledged that the fight for Irish independence cast a shadow over relations but also commented on how ties across the Irish Sea are now stronger than ever: “We acknowledge that past but, even more, we wholeheartedly welcome the considerable achievement of today’s reality – the mutual respect, friendship and cooperation which exists between our two countries.
“That benign reality was brought into sharp relief by the historic visit of Queen Elizabeth to Ireland three years ago”.
Mr Higgins added: “I stand here at a time when the relationship between our two islands has, as I have said, achieved a closeness and warmth that once seemed unachievable.”
Speaking about the peace process, Mr Higgins also wanted to make clear that, as good as relations are, work remains to be done as working for peace is always ongoing: “Our two countries can take immense pride in the progress of the cause of peace in Northern Ireland. There is of course still a road to be travelled – the road of a lasting and creative reconciliation – and our two governments have a shared responsibility to encourage and support those who need to complete the journey of making peace permanent and constructive.”
Mr Higgins paid tribute to Irish nationalist soldier and poet Tom Kettle who enlisted in an Irish regiment when World War One broke out. Quoting Kettle on British-Irish relations, Higgins said: “‘Free, we are free to be your friend’.”
“The journey of our shared British-Irish relationship towards that freedom has progressed from the doubting eyes of estrangement to the trusting eyes of partnership and, in recent years, to the welcoming eyes of friendship.”
President Michael D Higgins is the first Irish head of state tobe given the honour of speaking to both British parliamentary houses.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Labour leader Ed Miliband were in the audience. Very significantly, three politicans from Sinn Fein (Pat Doherty, Michelle Gildernew and Paul Maskey) were also present.
Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers and her predecessor Peter Hain were also there.
Before taking to the podium, President Higgins was welcomed by Mr Speaker, the Rt Hon John Bercow MP who said: “You could not be more welcome than you are”. This followed by a loud and prolonged applause.
In thanking him, Lord Speaker Baroness D’Souza described the President as a “renaissance man for a renaissance era in UK-Irish politics”.
President Higgins had previously laid a wreath with a tri-coloured ribbon at the grave of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey,before being taken on a tour of the Abbey.
Later this evening, he and his wife Sabina will attend a state banquet in their honour at Windsor.