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."

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