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Irish president to make 1st state visit to Britain

April 7, 2014

DUBLIN (AP) — Ireland’s head of state is making his country’s first state visit to Britain this week, a trip that has been decades in the making and provides another poignant milestone for peacemaking.

President Michael D. Higgins is flying Monday to England a day ahead of his formal reception by Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle west of London. Higgins’ tour, which runs through Friday, comes three years after the queen’s first state visit to the Republic of Ireland, which a British monarch had not visited since 1911.

The two countries maintained frosty relations for decades following Ireland’s 1919-1921 war of independence from the United Kingdom. Ireland’s 1937 constitution rejected the British monarch as its head of state and created a new office of president instead. State visits were deemed impossible during the Irish Republican Army’s 1970-1997 campaign of bombings and shootings seeking to push Northern Ireland out of the U.K. and into the republic.

Much has changed since the IRA cease-fire and the U.S.-brokered Good Friday peace accord for Northern Ireland in 1998. Today a former IRA commander, Martin McGuinness, is the senior Irish Catholic in Northern Ireland’s unity government with British Protestants.

Yet until recently, McGuinness still boycotted contact with British royalty to avoid criticism from Irish republicans, some of whom brand him a traitor for agreeing to help govern a part of the U.K. He refused to attend the queen’s May 2011 events and agreed to meet her only in June 2012, when they shook hands during a brief, minutely choreographed encounter in Belfast.

McGuinness said he would be the queen’s guest at Windsor Castle and other events this week in London even though it “involves political and symbolic challenges for Irish republicans.”

Two previous Irish presidents met Elizabeth several times since 1995, when Mary Robinson opened personal diplomatic channels with Buckingham Palace. But this is the first state visit to Britain by an Irish president.

Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny said he hoped the queen could travel to Dublin in 1916 for the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising, the rebellion that inspired Ireland’s war of independence. He said British royal visits should become normal in the Republic of Ireland.

“We’ve got to move on and not be blocked by the past,” said Kenny, who also is traveling to Windsor Castle.

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