Another taboo broken, says First Minister
FIRST MINISTER Peter Robinson said another “taboo was broken” after Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister and former IRA leader Martin McGuinness held a cordial first meeting with Queen Elizabeth and her husband Prince Philip at the Lyric Theatre in south Belfast yesterday.
Mr McGuinness and the British monarch shook hands twice at the arts event sponsored by Co-operation Ireland yesterday morning, first in private in a side room of the theatre and then in front of photographers as Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip were heading on to another engagement.
“This is another taboo that has been cast aside, it shows that Northern Ireland is becoming a normal society,” said Mr Robinson, who accompanied Mr McGuinness to the event, which was also attended by President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina.
Mr McGuinness spoke very briefly to reporters when he left the theatre after the arts reception. When asked, he said it was “very nice” to meet Queen Elizabeth, adding: “I am still a republican”.
While it was expected that the British royal couple and Mr McGuinness would observe the protocols of the historic encounter, there were some concerns that the atmospherics could be cold and constrained. The fact that the IRA in 1979 murdered Lord Louis Mountbatten, cousin of the queen and Prince Philip’s uncle, added to that sense of apprehension.
However, Mr Robinson and chief executive of Co-operation Ireland Peter Sheridan confirmed the mood of the meeting was warm and friendly. “It was respectful and dignified. There was no tension whatsoever,”the First Minister said.
“It was very natural and relaxed,” said Mr Sheridan. “It was part of history, a moment in history . . . I don’t think that even the biggest of visionaries among us could anticipate that that would happen.” He added that the meeting was a “significant milestone on the road to reconciliation on this island and between our two islands”.
The issue of Lord Mountbatten was not raised by any of the parties during the meeting but both Mr McGuinness and Queen Elizabeth did refer to the Troubles.
The Deputy First Minister congratulated her on adverting to the need to remember all the victims of the conflict and their families in her speech in Dublin Castle last year. The queen reiterated that all victims must be remembered.
A spokesman for Mr McGuinness added: “He emphasised the need to acknowledge the pain of all victims of the conflict and their families.” Mr McGuinness got over any potential hurdles about what he might call Queen Elizabeth by addressing her initially in Irish, wishing her a “fáilte romhat” and saying yesterday was a “maidin mhaith”.
The principals – the queen, Prince Philip, President Higgins and Mrs Higgins, Mr McGuinness and Mr Robinson, and an official from Áras an Uachtaráin and Buckingham Palace – spoke together privately for about eight minutes, before then moving out to the café area of the theatre to mingle with about 50 guests from the Northern Ireland arts world.
As Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip were leaving the building they again shook hands with Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness, with the Deputy First Minister saying to her: “Slán agus beannacht”.
The royal couple then travelled to the Titanic Quarter where they visited the Titanic Belfast exhibition and then went to the Stormont estate for a royal diamond jubilee garden party attended by 22,000 people.
Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams said yesterday that the meeting brought “our journey of relationship building within this island and between these islands on to a new plane”.
“All in all it’s a good day for Ireland and a good day for the people of these islands,” Mr Adams added. “The significance will be seen in how much we can build upon it.”