- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 26, 2012

ENNISKILLEN, Northern Ireland — Queen Elizabeth II prayed Tuesday with Catholic and Protestant leaders from across Northern Ireland as this long-divided land demonstrated its rising faith in a shared future - and braced for a peacemaking milestone that has been a quarter-century in the making.

The British monarch visited the lakeside town of Enniskillen, scene of one of the Irish Republican Army’s most shocking atrocities, for events symbolizing how far Northern Ireland has come from its darkest days of bloodshed.

On Wednesday, she is expected to meet and shake hands with Martin McGuinness, former commander of the dominant Provisional IRA faction, in what many see as the symbolic conclusion to a four-decade conflict known as the Troubles.

Their first-ever contact, long avoided by Mr. McGuinnessIrish nationalist party Sinn Fein, follows the Provisional IRA’s killing of some 1,775 people since 1970, including the queen’s own cousin Lord Louis Mountbatten - a 1979 assassination that IRA experts say Mr. McGuinness sanctioned.

Mr. McGuinness today is the senior Catholic in Northern Ireland’s unity government, an institution forged following the Provisionals’ 2005 decision to renounce violence and disarm.

Yet the political difficulties that Mr. McGuinness faces are writ large on the Northern Ireland landscape.

Catholics and Protestants alike are suddenly ribbing him, if not to his face, as “Sir Martin of Londonderry” - a tongue-in-cheek reference to his home city, because virtually all Irish nationalists reject that British name and use its native Irish name of Derry.

Many Protestant leaders and analysts likewise have asserted, triumphantly, that the peace process has left Mr. McGuinness with no choice but to bend the knee to the British monarch.

“If Martin McGuinness is to be the deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, he needs to recognize that her majesty is head of state of the United Kingdom,” said Jeffrey Donaldson, a lawmaker from the main Protestant party, the Democratic Unionists, which runs Northern Ireland in a surprisingly stable coalition with Sinn Fein.

More troublingly, supporters of small IRA groups that still mount occasional shootings and bombings in Northern Ireland have daubed walls in Mr. McGuinness‘ home city with slogans denouncing Sinn Fein as “sellouts.”

And overnight, the hillside overlooking Sinn Fein’s other principal power base, Catholic West Belfast, was decorated with a massive Irish flag and the slogan “Erin [Ireland] is our Queen.”

Such fears that a future IRA might rise out of alienated Catholic districts were nowhere to be heard Tuesday in Enniskillen, as the queen arrived in a 10-car motorcade for an ecumenical church service in honor of her 60th anniversary on the throne. Sinn Fein members stayed away from the event.