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Queen Elizabeth, ex-IRA leader share historic handshake

June 27, 2012 |  5:58 am

LONDON -- In a meeting symbolizing the end of years of enmity between British rule and Northern Ireland republicans, Queen Elizabeth shook hands Wednesday with a former Irish Republican Army commander.

Martin McGuinness, now a deputy first minister of Northern Ireland and a member of the pro-republican Sinn Fein party, was a senior IRA member in the years of sectarian violence. During that time, the group was responsible for blowing up the yacht of Lord Louis Mountbatten, the queen's cousin, killing him and three others while they vacationed off the coast of Northern Ireland in 1979. 

The once unthinkable handshake took place away from media eyes -- apart from one camera crew -- behind closed doors at a charity arts event in Belfast, witnessed by the queen’s husband, Prince Philip, and leading politicians including Irish President Michael Higgins and Northern Ireland’s first minister, Peter Robinson.

The seemingly mundane greeting was widely heralded as a turning point. Peter Sheridan, host of the event, told reporters, "It's a huge act of reconciliation, you cannot underestimate how important this is."

The queen, wearing a pale green coat and hat, also toured a local art exhibit, the work of a cultural charity aimed at fostering cross-community relations between Catholics and Protestants. As she left the Lyric Theatre, the carefully chosen apolitical context where the event took place, the queen smiled as she shook hands again with McGuinness, this time publicly as he was standing in line with other officials.

Afterward, McGuinness told reporters he spoke to the queen in Gaelic telling her his words meant “Goodbye and God speed.”

The show of reconciliation was generally judged to have cost both leaders a price. Some hard-line republicans view McGuinness as a traitor, but most agreed that it was a step forward.

"From the queen's point of view, she lost a member of the family, so it's a big step for her," Joe McGowan, a Northern Ireland historian, told Sky News. "Martin McGuinness is conceding something. He has to recognize that the struggle over the past 30 years was lost, in a military sense anyway."

Roy Foster, a professor of Irish history at Oxford University, told the BBC before the meeting that “a lot is going to have to be forgotten. It's hard to think that the queen can forget that Martin McGuinness was chief of staff [of the IRA] when Lord Mountbatten was blown up in 1979 ... and the extraordinary statements from the IRA after the event ... that they'd only done to Mountbatten what he'd spent his lifetime doing to other people."

On the other hand, he said, the occasion could help repair political damage to McGuinness' party after Sinn Fein boycotted the queen's visit in May 2011, the first by a reigning British monarch since Ireland gained independence from Britain in 1922. That trip won approval from the majority of the Irish population.

The two-day royal trip, part of the queen’s diamond jubilee tour of Britain, was heavily policed but also feted by thousands of cheering crowds as the monarch and Prince Philip walked along streets of Enniskillen after their arrival Tuesday. The town was the scene of a devastating 1987 IRA bomb attack that killed 11 people.

Yhe visit was also marked by the action of small groups of anti-royalist protesters. On Tuesday night, nine police officers were wounded as they broke up a demonstration of about 100 youths throwing petrol bombs in West Belfast.

The area was once a stronghold of urban guerrilla warfare in the 30-year sectarian war waged between extremist Catholic IRA republican groups and Protestant Unionist pro-British movements, which a British army campaign battled to subdue until the gradual withdrawal of troops after a peace agreement in 1998.

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 -- Janet Stobart

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