The significance of the handshake that took place in Belfast yesterday was lost on no one, least of all on the two participants, the Queen and the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness. Indeed, they seemed intent on prolonging the moment, though whether that was to give the cameras ample time to record the historic image, or just to savour the experience, we shall never know.
That such a public handshake took place at all, though, sets the seal on changes that are not to be underestimated. The contrast between the Queen's almost furtive Silver Jubilee visit to Northern Ireland in 1977, when protests proliferated and she was – for obvious reasons – cocooned in security, and her Diamond Jubilee visit this week, when she stayed overnight at Hillsborough Castle, attended a picnic for 20,000 people at Stormont, and – a not negligible detail this – wore green, is proof of a near-miraculous transformation.
And it is a transformation which, for all the misgivings of some in Northern Ireland, has entailed a shift in attitudes on both sides. How else could the Queen have made a successful state visit to the Irish Republic, as she did last year? How else could Mr McGuinness, a former IRA commander, have joined a government that owes allegiance to the Crown? How else could that handshake have come about?
But the transformation in Northern Ireland, impressive though it is, should not be overestimated either. That peace prevails, albeit sometimes uneasily, has improved life for almost everyone. Sectarian violence, and all that came with it – armed troops on the streets, internment, hunger strikes and mainland bombings – is now a memory, though still vivid in many a mind. Yet reconciliation has been much slower in coming. In such basics as housing and schooling, the two communities, Protestant and Catholic, loyalist and republican, live mostly separate lives. Until the incongruously named peace walls come down in Belfast, what has been a heartening but by no means all-encompassing process cannot be described as anything like complete.