EVEN very recently it seemed unthinkable, but yesterday history was made when the Queen shook hands with former IRA commander Martin McGuinness.
• Hand-shake took place behind closed doors
• Sinn Fein politician describes greeting as a gesture of peace
• Mixed feelings for Queen due to death of cousin Lord Mountbatten
With one simple gesture they symbolised the huge strides taken to bring peace to Northern Ireland – the prelude to joyful scenes that saw the Queen receive a rapturous reception when she attended an open-air Jubilee party on the Stormont Estate in Belfast. In years gone by nobody would have predicted the British monarch would greet a man with such strong links to the paramilitary organisation which waged a terrorist campaign against the British state for almost 40 years.
But with the Northern Irish “Troubles” now over, the meeting was seen as one of the final elements of the peace process that brought Unionists and Republicans together to form the Province’s devolved government.
The first handshake was made at a private meeting held in Belfast’s Lyric Theatre at an event organised by the charity Co-operation Ireland, which has worked ceaselessly to bring Ulster’s deeply divided communities together.
It only took a few seconds for history to be made when the Queen and Mr McGuinness, now Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, were ushered into a room sparsely furnished with four leather chairs and a sofa set beside a round table with large windows looking out to the River Lagan.
With the Queen and Mr McGuinness were the Duke of Edinburgh, the Democratic Unionist Party first minister Peter Robinson, Irish president Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina. Mr McGuinness described their meeting as a “powerful signal that peace-building requires leadership”.
It is understood Mr McGuinness welcomed both the Queen and the Irish president in Irish. He then spoke to the monarch about the significance of her visit and of the need for it to be built on in the years ahead.
The deputy first minister is said to have commented on the Queen’s visit to Dublin last year, and in particular her comments regarding all the victims of the Troubles.
Last year, Sinn Fein boycotted the Queen’s first ever visit to the Irish Republic, a stance that was seen as unnecessarily churlish given the efforts made by the Royal Family to embrace all the traditions in Ireland.
The boycott was seen as a factor that led to Sinn Fein and Mr McGuinness performing poorly in the Republic of Ireland presidential election.
But it was a speech made on her trip last year in which the Queen extended her deepest sympathy to all victims of Anglo-Irish conflicts, regardless of what side they were on, that was seen as a key step on the journey towards yesterday’s meeting.
Afterwards, Mr Robinson, who has himself overcome bitter political differences to work with Mr McGuinness, said the meeting was a sign that politics was working and an age-old quarrel had been set to one side.
The Northern Ireland secretary Owen Paterson said: “This will move Northern Ireland on to a whole new plane. After all the trauma of Northern Ireland, everyone is looking forward. This is a moment in Northern Ireland’s history that will shine in our collective memory.
Mr Higgins said he had been delighted “to have the opportunity for a brief but very warm meeting” with the Queen.
He said it marked “another important step on the journey to reconciliation on this island”.
Later, as the Queen left the theatre to continue her Diamond Jubilee tour of Northern Ireland, she shook hands once more with Mr McGuinness – this time in public.
As they shook hands for a second time, Mr McGuinness wished the Queen well in Irish and told her that the phrase meant: “Goodbye and God’s speed.”
Asked as he was leaving how his meeting with the Queen had gone, Mr McGuinness described it as “very nice” saying that “it went really well”.
Before he got into his chauffeur-driven car, Mr McGuinness, who has been criticised by hardliners in his movement for compromising his beliefs, quickly added: “I’m still a Republican.”
Prime Minister David Cameron’s official spokesman said the Queen’s visit to the Republic of Ireland last year had “taken relations between the two countries to a new level”.
He added: “We think it is right that the Queen should meet representatives from all parts of the community.”
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said he very much welcomed the meeting between the Queen and Mr McGuinness.
Speaking to reporters in Dublin, Mr Adams said: “It brings our journey of relationship building within this island and between these islands on to a new plane.
“I think the vast majority of Unionists will be pleased this happened because they know it was essentially a real gesture towards their sense of identity and their sense of allegiance.
“Whatever personal feelings Martin may have, no more than myself, doesn’t come into it. It was a good thing for him to do and I commend him for it,” he added.
For the Queen, the day must have been one of mixed feelings given that her distant cousin and the Duke of Edinburgh’s uncle, Lord Louis Mountbatten, was murdered by the IRA in 1979 when Mr McGuinness is said to have been the Provisionals’ chief of staff.
Lord Mountbatten was one of the highest profile victims of the terrorist conflict that claimed 3,700 lives. During the Troubles, the IRA was also behind a foiled plot to murder the Prince and Princess of Wales at a pop concert in London. There was also an attempt on the lives of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh during a visit to the Province in the 1970s when the Troubles were at their height.
After a visit to Belfast’s Titanic tourist attraction, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh made the short journey to Stormont, home of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the scene of many of the key political breakthroughs on the road to peace.
It was a sign of the more peaceful times and a thorough security operation that the Queen and her husband were able to stand and wave at 20,000 well-wishers who thronged the avenues leading to the assembly from an open-air vehicle.
The Queen and the Duke were then greeted near the statue to Lord Carson, one of the founders of Northern Ireland, by Mr Robinson and his wife Iris. Among those clamouring to see the Queen was Richard Gilpin, 78, from Ballymena in Co Antrim.
The ex-army man said he had been proud to serve in the Crown forces and was glad to witness the festivities.
“I have waited a long time to see this. It is a smashing tribute to our monarch. She means so much to us as our Queen. She represents the nation and we are delighted to have her here,” he said.
He said the Martin McGuinness handshake was a moment of forgiveness.
“It is a real sign of changed times in Northern Ireland. She is our Queen and she is gracious enough to do what once was impossible,” he said.