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Ex-IRA leader shakes hands with the queen

McGuinness attends first royal function

- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 27, 2012

BELFAST — Queen Elizabeth II and a former Irish Republican Army commander offered each other the hand of peace Wednesday in a long-awaited encounter symbolizing Northern Ireland's progress in achieving reconciliation after decades of violence.

The monarch and Martin McGuinness met privately inside Belfast's riverside Lyric Theatre during a cross-community arts event featuring Northern Ireland musicians, poets and artists.

Media were barred from seeing their first handshake during an ice-breaker over coffee and tea.

But the two shook hands again a half-hour later for the cameras' benefit, documenting a moment that would have been inconceivable back in the days when IRA leaders were plotting to kill the British royal family.

Mr. McGuinness' Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party had never attended a royal function before.

Underlying the sensitivity of the occasion, no live footage or sound was permitted to be broadcast. Outside, flak-jacketed police shut down all roads surrounding the theater and told residents to stay inside their homes.

Both smiled broadly as Mr. McGuinness took the queen's white-gloved hand and spoke to her for about five seconds.

Afterward Mr. McGuinness said he had told her in Gaelic - a language neither of them speaks - "Slan agus beannacht" and told her this meant "goodbye and godspeed." The latter word actually means "blessing."

The 86-year-old head of state, resplendent in a suit and broad-brimmed hat of matching apple green, didn't speak but kept smiling as she shared a stage with a man linked to the killing of her cousin Lord Louis Mountbatten.

Experts on Irish republicanism say Mr. McGuinness, 62, was the IRA's chief of staff when the outlawed group blew up Mountbatten's yacht in 1979, killing the 79-year-old and three others.

Mr. McGuinness quickly left afterward. "It went really well. I'm still a republican," he said in response to a reporter's question as he stepped into his chauffeur-driven government car.

The queen was in Belfast officially to celebrate her 60th year on the throne with an open-air party attended by more than 20,000 royalists overwhelmingly from the Protestant majority.

She also received a gift from Northern Ireland's unity government that Mr. McGuinness leads alongside a Protestant, Peter Robinson. Their surprisingly stable coalition is the central achievement flowing from Northern Ireland's 1998 peace agreement and the IRA's 2005 decision to renounce violence and disarm.

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