Queen and Ireland's Sinn Fein prepare to make history
Queen Elizabeth enters Croke Park stadium on May 18, 2011 with then-Irish President Mary McAleese and Gaelic Athletic Association president Christy Cooney. The Queen's visit to Croke Park highlighted the vast improvement in Anglo-Irish relations. The stadium was the site of 1920's Bloody Sunday, when 14 Irish civilians were killed by British troops. (Reuters)
It may only turn out to be a handshake, but it may be the most important exchange yet in the age-old conflict that has split Northern Ireland.
Sinn Fein leaders agreed on Friday that one of their own, former IRA commander Martin McGuinness (right), will meet the Queen in his role as deputy first minister of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government.
When the Queen made her historic trip to the Republic of Ireland last year -- regarded as a major step toward reconciliation -- the Sinn Fein leadership refused to meet her, symbolically keeping their distance from an acknowledgement of her as Queen of Ireland.
This time, after decades of bloodshed on both sides, party leadership is willing to stretch out its hand, at least for a moment.
“This will understandably cause difficulties for some republicans and nationalists, but it is good for Ireland,” said Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, looking on the meeting as a “symbolic and significant step” in the peace process.
However, he was quick to also point out that the party is not retreating from its basic republican values. “After Martin McGuinness completes this engagement, he will be as true, as staunch, as active a republican as he ever was.”
This will not be an easy gesture on the Queen’s part, either. Like many, she too has been hit hard by the violence over the decades. Lord Mountbatten, her cousin and Prince Philip’s uncle, was targeted and killed by an IRA bomb in 1979.
The scheduled meeting has brought much reaction from both sides. Lord Tebbit, who was injured in a bomb blast in 1984, hopes it is a step toward “confessing and repenting for the crimes of IRA/Sinn Fein.”
The most likely reading of it, though, is an acknowledgement that both Britian and Northern Ireland have suffered greatly, and the slow march along the path to peaceful co-existence must continue.
"Inevitably past victims of IRA atrocities will be upset,” Peter Hain, former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, told the BBC. “Many Republicans will see it as a betrayal.
"But what it shows is that both Martin McGuinness and Her Majesty are saying that the future is much more important than the past. If we get stuck in the past we will never make any progress."
The planned reception on Wednesday, organized by Cooperation Ireland, will also include Irish President Michael D. Higgins and First Minister Peter Robinson.
An estimated 3,000 people died during the bloodiest years of conflict. The hardline violence of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s eventually gave way to an uneasy peace agreement in 1998, but there are still occasional republican-inspired attacks on the British.
Security concerns kept the Queen from any official visits to the Republic of Ireland until last May, when she scored major diplomatic points in her speeches that expressed regret over the conflict without assigning blame.
Anti-monarchy graffiti is pictured on a wall in west Belfast. Martin McGuinness, the ex-IRA commander turned Northern Ireland's deputy first minister, will meet Queen Elizabeth in a historic first for the peace process, Sinn Fein has anounced. (GettyImages)