Building upon “the deep friendships which have grown between Britain and Ireland” will be more important than ever in the wake of Brexit, Ireland’s president has said.

Michael D Higgins expressed his “sadness” at the decision of the British people to leave the European Union, but said the “dark days” of the UK and Ireland’s relationship were “behind us”.

Speaking at Birmingham Town Hall on the first day of his three-day visit to England on Monday, Mr Higgins said: “We have been sharing so much, much more than use of the English language in meetings of the Union.

President Michael D Higgins visit to Birmingham
Mr Higgins and his wife Sabina Coyne are on the first day of a three-day visit to the UK (Aaron Chown/PA)

“I wish to reiterate today that however the challenge of Brexit is resolved it will be more important than ever in the years ahead to sustain and build upon the deep friendships which have grown between Britain and Ireland.

“We will still continue to live in the shadow of each other.”

Speaking about a memorial to the 21 people who lost their lives in the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings, Mr Higgins said: I wanted to pay tribute and offer the respect of memory and sympathy to all of the innocent victims and their families and I do so as the President of Ireland. I want to thank the committee of the Birmingham Irish Association who put in place this respectful memorial to their loss.

“These dark days are now behind us. The relationship between Ireland and the UK is now one of co-operation, strength and friendship.”

The memorial near Birmingham’s New Street station features three metal trees, designed by artist Anuradha Patel, with the names of the victims written on the leaves.

President Michael D Higgins visit to Birmingham
Mr Higgins attended a civic reception at Birmingham Town Hall (Aaron Chown/PA)

“It was unveiled last November after a project involving the Justice4the21 campaign group, together with Network Rail and the Birmingham Irish Association.

Reflecting on the state visits he made to the UK in 2014, and the Queen made to Ireland in 2011, Mr Higgins added: “The importance of these visits in both directions is of course deep in symbolism, but much more than that they showcase the respect and esteem that our two countries have for one another.”

In his first visit to Birmingham as Irish president Mr Higgins praised the city’s Irish community who became part of the “very fabric” of the city.

He remarked on the work of Irish men in the 1950s who “built so much in the region” including famous Birmingham landmarks such as the NEC events venue and the Spaghetti Junction road system.

Mr Higgins said: “In 2017, much of this history was brought together in the wonderful project, appropriately titled We Built This City.”

The project tells the stories of Irish workers who came to Birmingham after the Second World War, through their own words and those of their children.

“Through this project you can get a sense of what it meant to these people to leave home, and how they went on to build their lives in a new city,” he added.

Mr Higgins also thanked the people of Birmingham for welcoming the Irish people and their families into their communities.