Irish president ends historic visit

Mid Devon Star: The Queen and Irish president Michael D Higgins in Windsor Castle The Queen and Irish president Michael D Higgins in Windsor Castle

The Queen will bid farewell to the president of Ireland today, drawing to a close a historic four-day state visit to the UK.

Michael D Higgins will leave Windsor Castle in Berkshire this morning before concluding his trip to Britain with visits to Stratford-upon-Avon and Coventry.

First he will visit the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, touring the dressing rooms, and the wigs and make-up department, as well as going backstage.

Inside the theatre he and his wife Sabina will be treated to a short performance by the actors before giving a brief address and moving on to the nearby Shakespeare's Birthplace, where he will see some of the artefacts in the museum's collection which have an Irish connection.

Later, Mr Higgins will travel to Coventry for a tour of its current cathedral and the ruins of the old building which was bombed during the Second World War, before meeting religious leaders.

Afterwards he will be formally received by the Lord Mayor of Coventry at St Mary's Guildhall, where he will meet members of the city's Irish community.

The Lord Chamberlain will then bid a final farewell to the presidential party on behalf of the Queen at Coventry Airport.

The state visit is the first by an Irish president and follows an official trip to Ireland by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh in 2011.

At a state banquet earlier this week at Windsor Castle, where the Irish head of state and his wife have been staying, the Queen said the events of the very recent past showed the two nations were "walking together towards a brighter, more settled future".

She added: "We will remember our past, but we shall no longer allow our past to ensnare our future."

In a historic address to the House of Commons on Tuesday Mr Higgins hailed the transformation of the relationship between Britain and Ireland from what had once been one of mistrust to one of mutual respect and friendship.

Last night the president attended a concert held in his honour at London's Royal Albert Hall, where he said his "memorable" state visit to the UK has been "so positive, so uplifting and so hopeful".

Taking to the stage to uproarious applause, he said: "On a night like this it is great to be Irish." He added it was "even better" to share it with "our friends in Britain", and described the cultures of the two nations as "deeply interwoven".

President Higgins, joined in the Royal Box by his wife and Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, enjoyed an evening of music, song, dance and literature featuring artists from the two nations, including Glen Hansard, Imelda May, Paul Brady, and special guest Elvis Costello.

Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness was also in the audience, along with First Minister Peter Robinson, Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers, Taoiseach Enda Kenny and former prime minister John Major.

President Higgins took to the stage shortly before the final notes of the concert Ceiliuradh (Celebration) rang out.

"In this magnificent venue and on this...historical occasion, I want to extend my thanks to a number of people who have made this evening's celebration, and indeed the past few days, extraordinary and memorable days, so positive, so uplifting and so hopeful," he said.

The president expressed his and his wife's "deep appreciation" to their hosts, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, thanking them for their "gracious and generous welcome and the warm hospitality".

He also thanked the Irish people living across the water for "the contribution you've made to the development of Britain, and for your part in the consolidation of an enduring friendship between our two countries".

He added: "A friendship that will grow and deepen and become richer as a result...of this memorable week.

"I want to tell you that you remain and will always be, all of you, a cherished member of the Irish family."

Earlier, more than 200 guests from the worlds of politics, business and athletics joined the Queen at Windsor Castle for a Northern Ireland-themed reception.

The event was held to recognise the contribution of British and Irish people who have furthered co-operation, enterprise and culture between Britain and Northern Ireland.

Guests included Mr Robinson, Mr McGuinness and Ms Villiers.

The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh greeted and chatted to the guests, who included MPs and MEPs from Northern Ireland, and medal-winning Olympic and Paralympic athletes.

Mr McGuinness shook hands with the Queen and congratulated her on her role in peacemaking in Ireland.

He said: "The Queen's visit to Dublin and how she conducted herself - her words at the memorial and Dublin Castle and how she reached out to all victims without differentiating - were all hugely impressive.

"She had many reasons not to meet me, and me her, but I think we've risen above that and seen the contribution that these big acts of reconciliation can have."

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