In an historic gesture, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth has shaken hands with former IRA commander Martin McGuinness.
It took just a matter of seconds, but for many the encounter between the official head of the British armed forces and a former key figure in the movement that battled them with the bullet and the bomb for decades, could barely have been more symbolic.
The conflict has claimed the lives of thousands of soldiers and civilians, including the Queen’s cousin, Lord Mountbatten. He was assassinated in 1979 while sailing off the coast of the Irish Republic.
The meeting with McGuinness came as the Queen visited Northern Ireland, where he is now deputy first minister of the devolved government. One camera was allowed to film the handshake but not to record sound.
Afterwards, McGuinness, who reportedly addressed the Queen in Gaelic, said the meeting “went very well” before adding: “I’m still a Republican.”
The gesture has been widely – but not unanimously – welcomed. For some Republicans, it has come too soon while staunch Loyalists – those who defend ties with Great Britain – have difficulties forgetting McGuinness’s militant past.
The IRA announced a ceasefire in 1994. Since then, moves towards peace have seen a decommissioning of weapons and the Republicans’ political wing, Sinn Fein, led by McGuinness, joining the devolved parliament.
Despite the continuing activities of some paramilitary splinter groups, the battle over Northern Ireland’s future can now be described as a political one.
In another sign of how far the peace process has progressed, as the Queen and Prince Phillip moved through a crowd of some 20,000 to a Diamond Jubilee celebration at Stormont Castle, they did so in an open-topped vehicle.
Just a few years ago, security concerns would have made this unthinkable.
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