Martin McGuinness and Queen to shake hands 'in private' during landmark meeting next week

 

Martin McGuinness will hold a landmark meeting with the Queen when she visits Belfast next week, his Sinn Fein party confirmed today following months of speculation about an formal encounter between royalty and republicans.

The decision had long been expected, though there were last-minute difficulties about the precise context in which it would take place.

Sinn Fein refused to agree to a meeting linked to the large-scale jubilee party which is to be held in the grounds of Stormont, the Belfast seat of government.

Although the party has brushed aside many of its old taboos in recent years, it clearly drew the line at having Mr McGuinness, who is Northern Ireland's deputy first minister, associated with the spectacle of more than ten thousand flag-waving royalists.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said: "This will understandably cause difficulty for republicans and nationalists, especially those who have suffered at the hands of British forces." But he added that the move reflected a "genuine desire to embrace our unionist neighbours".

It was announced that the Queen will meet Mr McGuinness, a former IRA commander, in an Anglo-Irish setting rather than at a specifically British event. This will not be a jubilee event, but a reception organised by Cooperation Ireland, a peace-building charity.

The organisation said it would invite "a small number of guests to recognise and celebrate the transformational strength of the arts and culture across the community in Northern Ireland and throughout Ireland."

Those invited will include Mr McGuinness and his unionist partner in government, first minister Peter Robinson.

The Queen, who is due to visit Northern Ireland on Tuesday and Wednesday, is joint patron of Co-operation Ireland with Irish President Michael D. Higgins.

The Sinn Fein decision was widely seen as inevitable since the republicans are regarded as having missed a trick when they boycotted the Queen's visit to Dublin a year ago.

That visit was hailed as a resounding success and indeed a historic moment in Anglo-Irish relations, especially when the Queen dressed in green and, to general surprise and delight, spoke several words of Irish in a speech.

She was applauded for being prepared to consign decades of Anglo-Irish friction to the past. In meeting Mr McGuinness she will be aware that the organisation he once led assassinated her relative, Lord Mountbatten.

On that occasion Sinn Fein found itself excluded from the general outpouring of goodwill. The irony was that the party has often been prepared to discard many facets of traditional republican policy, but during that royal event it held back.

There have been some low-level rumbles of discontent among republican ranks about a meeting with the Queen, who is immensely popular among Northern Ireland Protestants but holds less appeal for many Catholics and nationalists.

But there has been no outright opposition from within republican ranks, with most activists appearing relatively relaxed about the prospect.

The charity's chief executive Peter Sheridan, a former Belfast police officer, said of the reception: "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." He described it as "part of the healing process."

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