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Published: Tuesday April 8, 2014 MYT 7:50:09 PM
Updated: Tuesday April 8, 2014 MYT 7:51:31 PM

Britain hosts first state visit of Irish President

President of Ireland Michael Higgins (2nd R) and his wife Sabina (3rd R) arrive at Heathrow Airport near London, April 7, 2014. REUTERS/Toby Melville

President of Ireland Michael Higgins (2nd R) and his wife Sabina (3rd R) arrive at Heathrow Airport near London, April 7, 2014. REUTERS/Toby Melville

LONDON (Reuters) - President Michael Higgins became the first Irish head of state on Tuesday to make a state visit to Britain, crowning a big improvement in historically fraught relations between Dublin and its former colonial master.

More than 3,600 people were killed in British-ruled Northern Ireland from the 1960s onward until a 1998 peace deal largely ended the conflict between Catholic groups wanting the province to become part of the Irish Republic and Protestant groups determined to keep it within the United Kingdom.

"For a long time relations between independent Ireland and our nearest neighbour were burdened by the complex legacies of history," said Daniel Mulhall, Ireland's ambassador to Britain.

"The visit marks a culmination of three decades during which relations between our countries have undergone gradual but significant transformation."

In a sign of how far relations have progressed, former Irish Republican Army (IRA) guerrilla chief Martin McGuinness will join Higgins at many events, including a banquet to be hosted by Queen Elizabeth at Windsor Castle outside London.

Higgins, whose office is largely ceremonial, was due to address both houses of Britain's parliament later on Tuesday, a privilege only accorded to a few foreign leaders including Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama.

Higgins, 72, arrived for lunch at Windsor Castle with the 87-year-old queen in a horse-drawn carriage as a guard of honour played the British and Irish national anthems.

His trip follows a historic visit by the queen to the Irish Republic in 2011, the first by a British monarch since Dublin won its independence from London in 1921.

On Monday, a former British government minister said an amnesty should be offered to all those involved in the 30 years of violence in Northern Ireland in order to help the province move on from its past.

Higgins' four-day visit will include events to highlight the deep economic, political and cultural ties between the two countries. His trip will also take in Oxford, Shakespeare's birthplace of Stratford-on-Avon and the city of Coventry.

(Reporting by Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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