Belfast Telegraph

Queen hosts Martin McGuinness, Kelly Gallagher and Mary Peters at Northern Ireland-themed reception at Windsor Castle

By Mehreen Khan

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

The event, part of the state visit of the Irish president Michael D Higgins, was held to recognise the contribution of British and Irish individuals who have furthered co-operation, enterprise and culture between Britain and Northern Ireland.

Guests included First Minister of Northern Ireland Peter Robinson, Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness and Theresa Villiers, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

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 peace-making 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."

"I'm overjoyed for the president. He is my president and I'm delighted he's been accorded such a great welcome. The week will be noted for its spirit of generosity and peacemaking," added Mr McGuinness.

Mr McGuinness' attendance at a state banquet on Tuesday led to a political row after former Conservative chairman Lord Tebbit said: "There's always the possibility that a member of the Real IRA will be so outraged by Mr McGuinness bowing to the Queen that they might shoot him in the back for it. We can but hope."

The Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister and ex-IRA commander later rebuked Lord Tebbit, who was injured along with his wife in the IRA bombing of The Grand Hotel in Brighton in 1984.

Also among the guests were Paralympic gold medallist skier Kelly Gallagher and her guide, Charlotte Evans.

Ms Gallagher, from Northern Ireland, handed her medal to the Queen after she asked to see it.

The athlete said: "The Queen asked me if she could hold the medal. She said that when her grand-daughter Zara won a medal, she wanted to show it to the whole world.

"It's amazing to be at an event like this and to be able to celebrate sport."

Ms Evans, from Kent, flew back from France to attend the reception. "We feel like we're being rewarded again for all our work and training," she said.

Mary Peters, an Olympic gold medallist from 1972, was also at the reception. She is now the Lord Lieutenant of Belfast - making her the Queen's representative in the city - and described the state visit as "sensational".

She said: "It's been such a great journey for me as a sportsperson to be able to be in such august company.

"I regularly meet Prince Philip and the Queen when they are in Ireland. Somebody asked the Duke of Edinburgh if he knew me and he joked: 'Yes, I've known her since she was a little girl'."

It is extremely rare for the Queen to host a second reception - in addition to the banquet - during a state visit. This is being seen as a sign of the importance the Queen attributes to the president's trip, following her own state visit to Ireland, with the Duke of Edinburgh, in 2011.

The Irish ambassador to Britain, Dan Mulhall, described the visit, now in its third day, as the "most memorable week of my 35-year career".

Speaking at the state banquet for President Higgins on Tuesday, the Queen said of the peace process in Northern Ireland: "Our two governments will continue to work together in Northern Ireland to support the First and Deputy First Minister and the Executive to advance the peace process and to establish a shared society based on mutual respect and equality of opportunity."

Ms Villiers said: "It's hard to think of two countries that have so many cultural, social and economic links.

"Historic is a word that is over-used, but this week is a great demonstration of how far we've all come."

This afternoon's reception was being followed by a Ceiliuradh (Celebration) at the Royal Albert Hall in London - an Irish cultural concert of music, spoken word and dance. President Higgins and his wife, Sabina, were to be joined by Prince and Princess Michael of Kent.

The Queen was wearing a white basket-weave dress with an overlay of royal blue lace, designed by Angela Kelly.

Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson said Mr McGuiness's presence at the state visit hailed a "new era of respect and tolerance" between the two countries.

"We have to build upon respecting each other's traditions - sadly sometimes lacking - but if you see that Her Majesty has been willing to invite Martin McGuiness, and Martin McGuiness agreeing to come, all demonstrates that there is a new era of respect and tolerance," said Mr Robinson.

"In terms of the north and the south, we've had the best relationship with the Irish government we've ever had in our history. We're pushing in the same direction to get peace and stability, that is well grounded," he added.

Ireland's Foreign Affairs Minister, Eamon Gilmore, said that UK and Irish relations had reached a "new platform" this week.

He said: "It means an enormous amount to all the Irish living in Britain, who have had memories of difficult times, and can now see their head of state and the British Government extending such a generous welcome to the Irish head of state. It has been an event loaded with symbolism all week."

President Higgins will round off his visit tomorrow with a trip to the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the playwright's birth, before departing after a trip to Coventry Cathedral in the West Midlands.

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