The hand that used to carry a gun is gripped by a queen

It was an encounter as quick as it was carefully choreographed, but its symbolic importance will last for ever

With a polite and gracious smile, the Queen yesterday twice shook the hand of former IRA leader Martin McGuinness in yet another memorable moment 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." 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-machinegun, 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. In fact much of the old IRA has gone into government. Many of Sinn Fein's ministers, Assembly members and special advisors are former IRA prisoners.

The extraordinary thing about yesterday's occasion was that although it was momentous it was not controversial, since 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 following the McGuinness meeting. 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 at home and abroad.

"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 though the 22,000 people who throned 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.

Most of those at Stormont would have been Protestant. On Belfast's republican Falls Road the reaction was mixed: some much in favour of the handshake, some largely indifferent to it, and very few who disapproved.

"It's good," said Jim Howe, a sprightly 91-year-old. "I've seen everything and I think everything is going the right way at the moment. If we keep going this way we'll get there."

Mr and Mrs John Kelly were enthusiastic: "We approve," they chorused. "You don't want another 40-odd years of people getting bombed and shot. It's over."

Meanwhile Peter Burke, who had just left morning mass, reflected a common view when he said with a smile: "I feel quite indifferent about it, to be honest, but I suppose it's not doing any harm."

The actual encounter was very carefully planned, taking place against the neutral backdrop of a cultural event hosted by Cooperation Ireland, a crossborder charity. The meeting had become inevitable, but Mr McGuinness was never going to take part in any royal context.

Reaction was generally favourable. Michael Gallagher, whose brother and son were killed by republicans, said: "The vast majority of people know the future is coming together - not forgetting our past but not letting our past dominate the future. That's exactly what this meeting's doing."

Peter Sheridan of Cooperation Ireland commented: "This is part of the healing process. It is something that demonstrates to ordinary people out there that we have gotten to the stage where we can acknowledge each other with respect."

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. It does show in shining terms how everybody is turning their backs on the past of horror and violence."

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams said: "It brings our journey of relationship- building within this island and between these islands on to a new plane."

He added: "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."

History in the making: Gesture politics

The saga of the handshake began a year ago, when the Queen's visit to Dublin was judged a resounding success. The only real losers on that occasion were Sinn Fein, who stood out in boycotting the visit.

When the Northern Ireland Office announced plans for a large open-air jubilee party in Belfast, Sinn Fein made it clear that no meeting with the Queen would take place with an audience of thousands waving union jacks. But McGuinness had been making hints that he would be open to an encounter. Negotiations then continued until late last week a crossborder charity called Cooperation Ireland announced it would host an event for the Queen and the president of Ireland. It added it was inviting Mr McGuinness to attend.

Since this took the encounter out of the context of the Jubilee this proved satisfactory to him. Further detailed discussions took place on whether the handshake should be photographed. It was, though under strict conditions, with only one photographer present.

Northern Ireland: The hand of history

30 November 1995

Belfast bus tours mark the exact spot where President Bill Clinton jumped from his car to visit a bakery shop on the Falls Road. He bumped into Gerry Adams and cameras caught the "impromptu" handshake with the Sinn Fein president.

13 October 1997

Tony Blair first shook hands with Gerry Adams in a windowless room at Stormont Castle. Angry unionists later pelted the Prime Minister with surgical gloves as word spread of the encounter. Here they do so again 10 years later.

26 March 2007

Gerry Adams and then leader of the Democratic Unionist party, the Rev Ian Paisley (now Lord Bannside) put past enmities to one side as they announce at a diamond-shaped table they will form a government.

8 May 2007

The thaw was evident when Mr Paisley and Mr McGuinness formed a government as first minister and deputy first minister. A picture of the pair smiling together earns them the nickname of "the Chuckle Brothers."

10 March 2009

Tragedy unites Mr McGuinness, standing with unionist first minister Peter Robinson and Chief Constable Hugh Orde, as he denounces Republican dissidents who killed a police officer as "traitors to the island of Ireland."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

Recruitment Genius: Production Operative

£13000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to a period of sustained an...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies