Confirmation that Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness is to participate in this week’s first state visit to Britain by an Irish president has received a broad welcome.
The Sinn Fein figure, once one of the IRA’s most prominent commanders, will be present at a Windsor Castle state banquet hosted by the Queen in honour of Irish president Michael D. Higgins. The authorities in both London and Dublin believe the event will have major significance in the Northern Ireland peace process and in Anglo-Irish relations.
Mr McGuinness, Deputy First Minister in the Belfast powersharing administration, said the event would be “of tremendous significance”.
Saying the Queen had been a staunch supporter of the peace process and played a leading role, he said he believed she wanted to be involved in the event, adding: “It wasn’t something she was told to do by the Government.” Using more restrained language, a Buckingham Palace spokesman said they recognised the special nature of the state visit, adding that the Queen had taken a strong interest in the planning for the trip.
Referring to the Queen’s 2011 state visit to Ireland, which was universally hailed as a diplomatic triumph, he said: “What we have is a genuine desire on behalf of the Queen to repay the kindness that was shown to her in Ireland.” Sinn Fein’s approach of steering clear of that event was widely criticised as a lost opportunity to pursue the themes of peace and reconciliation.
Two years ago the party sought to recover some ground during the Queen’s visit to Belfast, when she and Mr McGuinness shook hands in what was regarded as a groundbreaking moment.
After that gesture, it would have been difficult for the Sinn Fein politician to not attend the Windsor Castle banquet – especially as Anglo-Irish relations are regarded as enjoying a golden age.
Sinn Fein has steadily improved its performance in the republic, to the point where party president Gerry Adams, who represents Louth in the Irish parliament, is the most popular party leader in opinion polls. There have been some rumblings of disapproval concerning the visit from the republican grassroots, however. Mr McGuinness acknowledged that “a certain percentage of people were nervous about this and there may even have been some opposition from a minority”.
Some distaste was also evident in Westminster. Andrew Rosindell, Conservative MP for Romford in Essex, said: “Whilst the man concerned has engaged in things in the past which have created appalling mayhem and tragedy, today we are looking at healing those rifts.
“In terms of building a democratic foundation in Northern Ireland, I can understand why people feel this is what we need to do. But would I want to sit beside him at dinner? No, I certainly would not.”