President Michael D Higgins has declared his state visit to Britain an unqualified success after a trip that ‘stripped away the layers of a troubled past.’
The President’s four day tour as a guest of Queen Elizabeth came to an end with official functions in Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon and the city of Coventry.
Ahead of his return home, President Higgins thanked the British people and the Irish Diaspora for the welcome he received.
He told the Irish Times: “Ireland and Britain are stripping away the old layers of the troubled past and creating new “hope and opportunity.
“My earnest hope is that our two countries will continue to tread the path of neighbourly friendship.”
Asked to reflect on the first official state visit by an Irish President to Britain, he added: “There was no attempt on either side to affect some kind of forced amnesia: that wouldn’t have authenticity.
“We do have different versions of similar events but we are not required to become involved in any amnesia.
“Think of all the things that we have in common. Just see all of the opportunities and the possibilities that are there.
“We are not required to be sentimental about each other all of the time. We can laugh at each other, but it is more important to have a good laugh at ourselves.”
Speaking after a week that saw former IRA leader Martin McGuinness shake hands with the Queen at a Windsor Castle dinner in his honor, the President said he was ‘enormously moved’ by the reception he had received.
He also told the Irish Times that it was clear from the start the British were ‘not just going through the motions’.
Asked about McGuinness’ presence at the dinner, President Higgins added: “One would only have to speculate what it would have been like if we were here at the end of the visit explaining absences rather than presences.
“The journey to build mutual understanding and co-operation is not yet complete but current and future challenges can be faced together.
“The state visit, by its nature, had an essential share of ceremonial formality. But at its heart it has been about the warmest of relations between close neighbours.”
President Higgins, whose father fought with the IRA in the War of Independence, confirmed that any decision to invite the Royal family to centenary celebrations of the 1916 Rising would be a government affair.
He said: “I haven’t the slightest difficulty in recognizing shared grief, I thought of my father as I was being driven in a horse-drawn carriage to Windsor Castle with the Queen.
“I thought of my father, to tell you the truth, I thought of my uncles; the terrible fact that they were on different sides went through my mind.”
Concluding, he noted one sadness and said: “If I may be allowed a note of regret from this visit, it is that the late Seamus Heaney was not with us to witness it.”