Queen Elizabeth to make historic Ireland visit

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Queen Elizabeth II will visit Ireland this year, her office announced Friday, in a first state visit by a British monarch since the republic gained independence in 1922.

In a hugely symbolic move for the normalisation of British-Irish relations following the peace established in Northern Ireland, it will be the first visit by a British sovereign in 100 years.

"The Queen has been pleased to accept an invitation from the president of Ireland to pay a state visit to Ireland this year," said a brief statement from Buckingham Palace.

She will be accompanied by her husband Prince Philip, the palace said.

The last visit to Ireland by a reigning British monarch was by the 84-year-old queen's grandfather, king George V, in 1911, a decade before southern Ireland won independence from Britain.

The Irish government welcomed confirmation of the visit, saying it "will mark a further improvement in the very good relations between Ireland and the United Kingdom".

Further details, including dates and venues, will be issued later but commentators suggest the trip could occur in May, shortly after the Queen's grandson Prince William marries Catherine Middleton.

A Downing Street spokesman said Prime Minister David Cameron was "delighted".

"The visit symbolises the strength of the relationship between our nations and the bond between the British and Irish people," the spokesman said.

British Ambassador to Ireland Julian King said ties between London and Dublin had never been closer or more important, while the visit showed how far the relationship had come, particularly over Northern Ireland.

"Our common bonds enable the UK and Ireland to work together as a strong, modern, forward-looking partnership focused on issues that matter to the British and Irish people, such as growth and jobs," he said.

Britain is Ireland's largest trading partner. London contributed seven billion pounds ($11.4 billion, 8.1 billion euros) to the bailout package for Ireland's collapsed "Celtic Tiger" economy.

In recent years, other members of the British royal family have visited Ireland, including Prince Philip, and the heir to the throne Prince Charles.

But a state visit by the monarch remained elusive amid continued strains between the two states, particularly over Northern Ireland, which remained part of the United Kingdom when the south gained independence.

Ties improved markedly during peace talks in Northern Ireland, which led to the landmark Good Friday agreement in 1998. Facilitated by the Irish and British governments, the deal largely ended three decades of violence.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, whose republican party was the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) paramilitaries, claimed the visit was premature.

He said it would cause "offence" to many in Ireland, "particularly victims of British rule and those with legacy issues in this state and in the North."

Queen Elizabeth's cousin Lord Mountbatten was assassinated by the IRA in 1979.

Ireland's president, Belfast-born Mary McAleese, has strongly supported the prospect of a visit by Queen Elizabeth.

And Brian Cowen, Ireland's outgoing prime minister, said during a visit to London last June that he wanted it to take place before McAleese leaves office in November.

McAleese's predecessor Mary Robinson was the first Irish head of state to meet Queen Elizabeth, when she had tea with her in Buckingham Palace in June 1996.

© 2011 AFP

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