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Queen hosts Irish president on 1st UK state visit

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London, Apr 9 (AP) - 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 on one massive 160-seat table, they heard the queen and Higgins pledge to lead their nations into a new era of friendship.

Higgins' trip - on 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, where a British monarch last visited 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.

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."

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.


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