LAUSANNE, Switzerland – The Olympic flame will travel to Ireland before the 2012 London Games in an historic and symbolic gesture of peace and political goodwill.
The International Olympic Committee on Thursday approved London's proposal for the flame to visit Dublin on June 6, the only time the flame will leave the U.K. during the 70-day torch relay.
After repeated human rights protests marred the international torch relay before the 2008 Beijing Games, the IOC ruled that future relays should take place only within the host countries. However, the IOC executive board agreed to make an exception so the London flame can travel from Northern Ireland, part of the U.K., into the Republic of Ireland.
Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny welcomed the decision as "fantastic news (that) will put Ireland center-stage in the immediate run-in to the games."
"This brings even closer to home the spirit of the Olympic Games, which is being hosted by our near neighbors in London next year," Kenny said.
Irish IOC member and national Olympic committee head Patrick Hickey said he expects a quarter of a million people to line the streets of Dublin for the occasion.
"What better a symbol for peace than the torch relay," Hickey told The Associated Press. "Ireland is also going through terribly tough economic times. This will give us a great lift out of all the gloom and doom."
The Olympic flame will arrive from Greece on May 18, kicking off an 8,000-mile relay across the U.K. and Ireland involving 8,000 torchbearers. Its first night in London will be spent at the Tower of London — keeper of the Crown Jewels — and the relay will culminate with the lighting of the cauldron during the July 27 opening ceremony at the city's Olympic Stadium.
Negotiations to take the torch to Ireland have been going on for months. The proposal won the support of Olympic officials, political leaders and security forces from the U.K., Northern Ireland and Ireland.
Sebastian Coe, head of the London organizing committee, said last month that taking the flame to Ireland "would speak eloquently and powerfully for sport."
The torch relay will go through Northern Ireland between June 3 and June 7 and enter Ireland from the Northern Ireland border town of Newry. It will arrive five years after leaders from Northern Ireland's British Protestant and Irish Catholic communities formed a unity government — the central aim of the 1998 Good Friday peace accord, which sought to end a three-decade conflict that left 3,700 dead.
"This historic occasion recognizes the friendship, peace and cooperation that now exists on the island of Ireland and demonstrates the unifying power of sport," said Ireland tourism and sports minister Michael Ring.
The torch's path also recognizes the reality that many of Ireland's athletes, north and south, must choose whether to compete for Britain or for Ireland. Some Olympic sports draw athletes from both parts of Ireland onto the Irish team, while others require Northern Ireland-based athletes to compete for Britain.
Security will be high for the torch relay, since it could be a target for those angry over Olympic funding by Britain's Conservative-led government, whose austerity plans have led to job cuts, pension cuts and university tuition increases.
Organizers hope the relay will be a celebration of local heroes, and introduced several Thursday in London as they mailed out offers to thousands of potential torchbearers.
Rachel Nafzger, 21, arrived at the news conference with her guide dog, Nikita. Born with limited sight, Nafzger is a conservation project leader with the Volunteer Society who works to restore rural railway stations in Devon and Cornwall.
"I just hope that through sharing my story, I can inspire people to get involved in the community to volunteer," she said.
She joked that while Nikita would probably come along, her dog would not be involved with the flame, as "that might get dangerous."
Pogatchnik reported from Dublin. Danica Kirka in London also contributed to this report.
Danica Kirka can be reached at http://twitter.com/DanicaKirka