IRELAND’S president has welcomed plans for a handshake between the Queen and Northern Ireland’s deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, a former IRA commander.
President Michael D Higgins, a long-term civil rights campaigner, will also attend the event where the encounter is set to take place, in Belfast on Wednesday.
The charity Co-operation Ireland is hosting a celebration of culture on the island of Ireland in Belfast’s Lyric Theatre and the venue will provide the stage for the first meeting between McGuinness and the Queen.
Higgins, who is visiting Irish communities in Britain, said: “I accepted the invitation on the basis that it would be an inclusive occasion.”
He said he hoped the meeting would help foster reconciliation. The handshake is expected to take place in private before the VIP guests join others at the event. The meeting is being seen as a milestone in efforts to normalise relations between nationalist and unionist communities.
Unionist First Minister Peter Robinson had said republicans should pay due respect to the Queen in recognition of her importance to many in Northern Ireland.
He was among those who said such a meeting would be difficult for the Queen, given that her family was hurt by republican violence when the IRA killed her cousin Lord Louis Mountbatten, 79, his grandson Nicholas, 14, and local teenager Paul Maxwell, 15, by bombing his yacht off County Sligo in 1979.
However, the Democratic Unionist leader welcomed the planned meeting. “The process has required us all to reach out and take decisions outside our comfort zone. It is the right decision and a step forward for NorthernIreland,” he said.
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams confirmed on Friday that his party’s ruling executive had agreed to accept the invitation issued to McGuinness, who shares an office at Stormont with Robinson. Adams said: “This will understandably cause difficulties for some republicans and nationalists, especially for those folks who suffered at the hands of British forces.”
But he added: “We’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do, despite the fact that it will cause difficulties for our own folk. But it’s good for Ireland. It’s good for this process we’re trying to develop. It’s the right time and the right reason.”
The meeting will be the high point of a two-day diamond jubilee trip to Northern Ireland by the Queen, whose itinerary begins at Enniskillen in County Fermanagh on Tuesday.
The handshake will be viewed as part of a long list of advances in Anglo-Irish relations. One of the most significant was the Queen laying a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin, which honours republicans who died fighting British rule, followed by a tour of the headquarters of the Gaelic Athletic Association, before she spoke Irish at a banquet in her honour.
Since then, McGuinness has spoken of how he was struck by the Queen’s gestures.