Queen Elizabeth makes history with handshake in Belfast
HISTORY was made in Northern Ireland on Wednesday when Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II shook hands with Martin McGuinness, a staunch pro- Irish Republican, in a symbolic gesture signalling normalisation after decades of bitter enmity.
Later, the queen and Prince Philip were cheered by more than 25,000 people as they rode to Stormont, the historic parliament building in Belfast, in an open-top vehicle - something that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
The much-heralded handshake took place in private during a visit to an art gallery in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland.
A second handshake, performed for the cameras, followed a short time later.
To give the meeting an all- Irish flavour, the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, and the Protestant First Minister (government chief) of Northern Ireland, Peter Robinson, were also present.
The handshake is significant given the bitter history between the British crown and Irish nationalists, and the 30 years of civil war between pro-Irish Republicans and pro-British Protestants in Northern Ireland.
It is expected to add another important piece to what has often been described as the jigsaw of the complex peace process in Northern Ireland, which began with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
McGuinness, a former commander of the once feared Irish Republican Army (IRA) - the terrorist paramilitary group of pro- Irish, Catholic nationalists - is now deputy first minister in the regional government of Northern Ireland.
His decision to meet the queen during her Diamond Jubilee tour was criticised as “treachery” by some of the more extreme elements in the Republican movement.
But McGuinness said it was important to show that time had moved on.” It is important that we all recognise that we are in a different place,” he said. When asked what it was like to meet the queen, headed: “Very nice.” He spoke about the suffering on “all sides” in the conflict and referred to the personal dimension of Wednesday’s events for the queen.
In 1979, the IRA blew up a yacht carrying Lord Louis Mountbatten, the queen’s cousin, off the coast of County Sligo on the west coast of the Republic of Ireland.
The Northern Ireland conflict, which started in the late 1960s, claimed more than 3,500 lives.
normalisation began with the declaration of an IRA cease fire in the mid-1990s.
But even though strict security was in force on Wednesday, the atmosphere could not have been more different from 1977, when the queen visited the province for her Silver Jubilee.
She was then whisked in and out of the troubled province, without staying overnight, and - as the commander in chief of Britain’s armed forces - was branded the “queen of death” on posters held up by nationalists.
Former British prime minister Tony Blain, who played a key part in the peace process, said of the handshake on Wednesday: “I think it is fantastic that we have come so far.
The queen’s is a magnificent gesture.