Queen extends hand of friendship to former IRA man McGuinness

 

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The Independent Online

With a polite and gracious smile, the Queen yesterday twice shook the hand of former IRA leader Martin McGuinness in yet another milestone in the Irish peace process.

He smiled in return, wishing her well with an Irish phrase which translates as "Goodbye and God bless" and later saying he found her "very nice". The Belfast poet Michael Longley, who was at the scene, reported: "I sensed nothing but relaxed goodwill and the rhythms of friendliness".

They met in the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, which a few years ago staged Sean O'Casey's play Shadow of a Gunman. The significance of yesterday's act was that Mr McGuinness, who was once said to have walked through Londonderry with a sub-machine gun, has now officially shaken off that shadow.

Once he was at the heart of the conflict: now, as a senior political figure he is at the heart of government. Much of the old IRA has gone into government. Many of Sinn Fein's ministers, Assembly members and special advisers are former IRA prisoners.

The extraordinary thing about yesterday's occasion was that it was not condemned by a single public figure. Instead, it was widely seen as one of the final pieces in a peace process which is universally regarded as irreversible.

It was endorsed, for example, by Ronnie Thompson who with thousands of others waited for hours for a glimpse of the Queen at an outdoor reception in Belfast. Caretaker at a school on the Protestant Shankill Road, he wore the medals he won during his 24 years serving in a variety of British regiments.

"I know what that man's done," he said of Mr McGuinness. "It takes a big person to put out the hand of friendship, but she did it. And if she did it I'm 100 per cent behind it."

The handshake was more formally endorsed by Democratic Unionist First Minister Peter Robinson, who with Mr McGuinness, his deputy, dominates the administration of Northern Ireland. He was one of the few present in the theatre for the first handshake.

But Tom Haire, leader of the Orangemen of Belfast, was not enthusiastic: he was happy and pleased to be at the jubilee party to see the monarch, he said. But, as for shaking the republican's hand, "it's a matter for herself, a personal matter between him and her. But I wouldn't be shaking his hand."

Overall, the 22,000 people who thronged the grounds of the Stormont Assembly simply wanted to see the Queen. "It was brilliant," said 13-year-old Becky Gregg. "The atmosphere has been absolutely electric," said Mrs Lesley Dobson.

Peter Hain, former Northern Ireland Secretary, said: "Despite the bitter history, what this really puts the seal on is that the past is the past." The Sinn Fein President Adams said: "It brings our journey of relationship-building within this island and between these islands on to a new plane."

Northern Ireland's First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy, Martin McGuinness, left, waiting to meet the Queen reuters

The handshake saga began a year ago, when the Queen's visit to Dublin was judged a success. Last week the Co-operation Ireland charity announced a joint event for the Queen and the Irish President, inviting Mr McGuinness. Talks on whether the handshake should be pictured led to the agreement of strict conditions, with only one photographer present.

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