The Queen shakes hands with an ex-IRA commander

Twice today–once in private, once in public–Queen Elizabeth II, head of the British military, shook hands with Martin McGuinness, a former commander of the Provisional Irish Republican Army who is now the province’s deputy first minister. The moments mark a milestone in the still-fragile peace in Northern Ireland.

As the  Belfast Telegraph explains:

By shaking the Queen’s hand he is doing the right thing. It is a hugely symbolic gesture and an unequivocal sign that politics in Northern Ireland has undergone a sea-change. Mr McGuinness says his gesture is the equivalent of shaking the hand of every unionist in the province. That might be overstating the situation but it certainly is extending the hand of friendship. He is to be commended for it.

The meeting comes a day after the Queen visited Enniskillen, scene of the IRA’s most notorious atrocity during the Troubles, when it bombed a Remembrance Day service in 1987, killing 11 people. The carefully choreographed meeting was almost inevitable after McGuinness and the rest of Sinn Fein were heavily criticized for churlishly boycotting her first official visit to the Republic of Ireland, when her her conciliatory speeches and gestures won over critics.

It wasn’t an easy moment for the Queen, meeting a convicted terrorist of an organization that wanted her dead. As the Telegraph states:

Mr McGuinness was convicted of IRA membership by the Republic of Ireland’s Special Criminal Court in 1973 after being caught with a car containing 250lb (113kg) of explosives and nearly 5,000 rounds of ammunition.

Though McGuinness says he left his command position in 1974, many say he continued to be a senior commander. As the Telegraph continues:

Ed Moloney, a historian of the IRA, says Mr McGuinness was its chief of staff from February 1978 to the autumn of 1982. Subsequently, said Moloney, he was the IRA’s adjutant-general, commander of Northern Command and chairman of the Army Council: top leadership roles throughout the Provos’ most savage years.

Patrick Byrne, a former Garda commissioner, told the Sunday Telegraph: “I am surprised at Martin McGuinness’s assertion that he stood down from the Provisional IRA in 1974. I dealt directly with counter-terrorism from 1972 to 1992. McGuinness was a key man in the organisation.”

There have been persistent reports that McGuinness approved the Enniskillen bombing, and that of the Queen’s cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten, who was assassinated in 1979 when his boat was bombed. Also killed was his mother-in-law, young grandson and a local boy. Other family members were seriously injured.

If the meeting was hard for the Queen, then it was equally difficult for McGuinness. The symbolic handshake hasn’t been warmly received by some Catholics, as Antony McIntyre explains in the Guardian:

McGuinness will not be standing in front of the British head of state on equal terms, as head of another state that had gained its independence from Britain. He is there as deputy head of a state over which the British hold unalloyed sovereignty and which he ostensibly spent much of his adult life trying to destroy.

Peter Hain, the former secretary of state for Northern Ireland, has said that “many republicans will see it as a betrayal“. He is right. They will feel that McGuinness and Sinn Féin have not simply compromised core principles but also abandoned them, principles in pursuit of which he and his colleagues in positions of leadership directed others to both take life and risk losing their own.

In County Derry, where McGuinness is domiciled, graffiti has appearedon walls – “U Dare Marty” and “Sinn Féin sellouts”. At a rally in south Armagh on Sunday, McGuinness was denounced as a traitor who had persistently lied to his volunteers. Despite the intemperate language in which it is sometimes expressed, the substance of republican opposition to the meeting does not render it the perspective of past-hugging dinosaurs.

In the end, it was just a handshake. After the meeting, McGuinness, now a leading politician for the Catholic party Sinn Fein, said, “It was good. It was very nice.”

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