Royal Roundup: Historic Handshake for Her Majesty

Queen Elizabeth II shakes hands with Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness in Belfast as First Minister Peter Robinson (center, background) watches. (Michael Dunlea, Express Newspapers/AP Images)

There will surely be tens of thousands, or more, news photographs of the Queen this Jubilee year, but none is likely to be as historically significant as the much-heralded photograph of the monarch shaking hands with former Irish Republican Army commander Martin McGuinness, who is now Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland.

The importance of the image would be hard to overestimate.

“In what generations on both sides had been raised to see as the most improbable of encounters,” wrote The New York Times, the meeting and handshake represented a reaching across a “gulf of history that had been beyond bridging, defined by faith and nation, hatred and loss, war and, only more recently, redemption.”

An agreement in 1998 implemented a peace process aimed at ending decades of the “Troubles,” the name often given to the violent civil wars that claimed the lives of thousands in Northern Ireland, including the Queen’s cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten, who was killed, along with three other family members, in his boat by a bomb planted by the IRA in 1979. Experts on the IRA say that McGuinness was the organization’s chief of staff at the time.

McGuinness later transferred to Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political arm, and he is now a minister in Northern Ireland’s coalition government. Wednesday’s event marked the first time Sinn Fein had ever attended a royal function, and it was clear that every aspect was elaborately planned.

BBC News Northern Ireland‘s political editor Mark Devenport said that the event, which took place at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre,  had been crafted to meet sensitivities of Sinn Fein, which has been resistant in the past to meeting with the royal family, and to lay the groundwork for the historic encounter.

“It is being stressed the arts event has a cross-border dimension and is not part of the Jubilee celebrations,” Devenport said.

There were actually two handshakes. The first occurred behind closed doors at the Lyric and was attended by seven people, including Irish President Michael Higgins, Northern Ireland’s First Minister Peter Robinson, and Prince Philip.

The second handshake, the public one, came at the end of the meeting.

Speaking in Gaelic, McGuinness said to the Queen: “Maidin mhaith, Cead mile failte,” which means, “Good morning, a hundred thousand welcomes.” He also said, “Slan agus beannacht,” which he translated as, “Goodbye and God speed.” The Associated Press said the final word actually means “blessing.”

John Reid, Britain’s former minister in charge of Northern Ireland, called the event “huge” and said “it is, in a sense, the ultimate handshake.”

Even before this week’s meeting took place, Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations compared it to another historic handshake that took place in 1993: “This is at least as big, if not bigger, in the British-Irish context, as [Israeli Prime Minister] Yitzhak Rabin shaking [PLO leader] Yasser Arafat’s hand on the lawn of the White House,” Haass said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe.

Mark Simpson, BBC News correspondent for Ireland, said that while the meeting could help Sinn Fein reach out to voters it could also turn off some more devotedly republican supporters.

“As for the Queen,” Simpson said, “it will not be the favorite moment of her 60-year reign, but it is certainly one of the most significant.”

McGuinness himself offered a short, but positive assessment: “It went really well,” he told reporters as he made a speedy exit, but he also said: “I’m still a republican.”