Wednesday, 27 June 2012
Queen Elizabeth II shakes hands with Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister and former IRA commander Martin McGuinness watched by First minister Peter Robinson (centre) at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast
Murder, love and betrayal – Belfast’s Lyric Theatre has staged many a fine performance but nothing to compare with the fine choreography and epic resonance which accompanied the first handshake between the Queen and former IRA terror commander and current Nothern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.
The Queen’s historic meeting with Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness was also filmed for posterity, Buckingham Palace has confirmed.
The initial handshake between the Queen and the former IRA commander remained private but farewells between the two individuals was filmed and photographed.
The historic encounter between the former IRA commander – now Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister – and the Queen was unthinkable a little over 10 years ago.
But the success of the peace process and the Queen’s acclaimed visit to the Republic of Ireland last year, when her conciliatory words and gestures won over many critics of the monarchy, paved the way for their meeting.
The much-anticipated handshake took place away from the media spotlight behind closed doors.
They met in a room within Belfast’s Lyric theatre during an event celebrating the arts in the Republic and Northern Ireland.
Mr McGuinness was a senior member of the IRA when it killed the Queen’s cousin Lord Mountbatten in a bomb blast in 1979.
The Queen is the head of Britain’s armed forces, seen in the past by Republicans as occupying troops in Northern Ireland.
In a quiet space used by the Lyric for creative learning, the two met and were joined by the Duke of Edinburgh, Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson, Irish President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina.
While it has been claimed that the Queen is not “in the business of doing deals”, she is being widely credited with clinching the historic meeting with Sinn Fein.
For while republican leaders have often had to carefully prepare their grassroots for such symbolic moves, in this case it is the Queen who seems to have done the spade work.
Her ground-breaking state visit to the Republic of Ireland last year made the latest development in the peace process possible.
The series of engagements she carried out alongside the then president of Ireland Mary McAleese were viewed as healing gestures on such a dramatic scale that they astounded many across the divided island.
In one of the most dramatic moments the Queen laid a wreath in Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance which honours the generations of republicans who died fighting British rule in Ireland.
There was also a royal visit to Croke Park, the 80,000 seater stadium that is the headquarters of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA).
And at a special banquet in her honour the Queen also impressed observers by speaking in Irish.
The cultural gestures – seen as public displays of respect to the Gaelic language and sports that her predecessors had historically sought to curb – had a major impact across Ireland.
And in a carefully crafted address the Queen went even further by expressing her wish that Ireland’s troubled history with Britain could have been different.
It was not lost on the Irish public that, while republicans have highlighted the royal family’s role in representing Britain’s armed forces, the Queen has also suffered personally as a result of the decades of violence.
The IRA murdered her cousin Lord Mountbatten in a bombing on his boat in Co Sligo in 1979 that also killed one of his twin grandsons Nicholas Knatchbull aged 14, and Co Fermanagh 15-year-old Paul Maxwell.
A further victim of the attack was Lady Doreen Brabourne who was mother-in-law of Lord Mountbatten’s daughter.
The royal meeting in Belfast follows cross-community gestures by Stormont leaders Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness – but both men have said this encounter is a major step.
The meeting with the Queen fits in with Sinn Fein’s stated desire to reach out to unionists.
And at a time when the party is expanding its position south of the Irish border, the handshake may help its efforts to secure a position in the political mainstream in the Republic.
In the build-up to the meeting between the Queen and Mr McGuinness, Sinn Fein signalled its need for political choreography around the encounter to help deliver a “do-able proposition”.
Mr Robinson said at the time that the he did not believe the Queen was “in the business of doing deals”, but it can now be argued that her efforts to heal old wounds helped seal this particular political agreement.