McGuinness to meet Queen Elizabeth at event in Belfast

Fri, Jun 22, 2012, 01:00

Sinn Féin deputy first minister Martin McGuinness will shake hands with Queen Elizabeth II next week after the party's ruling body today approved the policy departure.

A little after a year since Sinn Féin organised protests against the queen's visit to the State, party leader Gerry Adams confirmed today the historic meeting will take place next week in Belfast.

At a press conference in the party’s Dublin headquarters this afternoon, Mr Adams said it was the right decision at the right time and for the right reasons. He intimated the context had changed since last year, referring to the queen's speech in Dublin Castle as a catalyst.

He also disclosed the decision of the 40-strong ardcomhairle had not been unanimous but that the majority had been clear. He would not give the precise outcome.

He said the invitation had come from Co-operation Ireland to attend the event in Belfast to celebrate arts and culture across Ireland.

"I will also be attended by the President of Ireland, the Queen of England and the First Minister [Peter Robinson]," he said.

"As this means that Martin McGuinness will meet the monarch the Queen of England, this will be very difficult for nationalists and republicans especially those folks who have suffered at the hands of British forces in Ireland over many decades."

The queen, who will be in the North as part of her Diamond Jubilee celebrations, has never met a senior figure in Sinn Féin or the IRA, which killed her cousin Lord Mountbatten at Mullaghmore, Co Sligo, in 1979.

Mr Adams said the decision had been taken in the interests of conflict resolution and national reconciliation. He said it would impose major symbolic and political challenges for the party. "Irish republicans have been prepared to take bold initiatives for peace and to break stalemates in the interests of peace," he said.

He said while unification remained the party's prime objective there was a new dispensation in which a citizen could be Irish or unionist and be comfortable on this island. He said the "confident, dynamic, forward-looking" Sinn Féin had a "genuine desire to embrace our unionist neighbours".

"I understand full well that this decision will be very difficult for people, especially victims of British crown forces. They will have genuine and understandable difficulties," he said. "It's very clear that these legacy issues will have to be dealt with. Today's decision is the right thing to do at the right time and for the right reasons."

Asked would it require similar generosity by the queen given the IRA had killed Lord Mountbatten, Mr Adams acknowledged it would.

When it was put to him that Sinn Féin had organised protests against the queen's visit last year, and also instructed the mayor of Cashel not to welcome her, he said last year's visit was a British royal visit to the State, allowing for a normalisation of relations.

"This is a different matter. This is us on terms which are acceptable to us trying to reach out to others whose opinions differ from us in their sense of identity,” he said. "It is also part of the necessary healing process."

Mr Adams dismissed the suggestion it was a final abandonment by Sinn Féin of its republican principles. "When we wake up after this we will continue with necessary jobs of building a real and true republic," he said.

Asked would Mr McGuinness shake hands with the queen, Mr Adams replied: "Any time any republican is involved, they fulfil the civic niceties, and we shake hands."

Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who is in Scotland at the British-Irish Council summit today, said he had been confident the handshake would be agreed to. “It’s not the first time that the Sinn Féiner has met a member of royalty,” Mr Kenny said.

“The queen herself, when she spoke in Dublin Castle, said in hindsight if we could do things again there are some things that we might do differently, and some things that we wouldn’t do at all. We’re in a very different space in 2012. We’re in a modern era.”

Mr Kenny also said a refusal to shake hands would have been a very retrograde step.

This morning, Sinn Féin deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald said the issue was "a big ask of republicans". She said Mr McGuinness was conscious of the views of a million unionists in Northern Ireland and their affinity with the queen.

However, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore said the visit of Queen Elizabeth to any part of Ireland should now be seen as "something normal" and should be responded to accordingly.

“We’ve gone past the stage where we see these kinds of events as big, momentous occasions,” he told reporters in Dublin today.

"Meeting people, greeting people, should be a normal everyday part of the mature relationship that Ireland has with Britain. We have to look at things moving forward. I think the big lesson we’ve learnt over the past number of years is the necessity to look forward than look back.”

He said there was a renewed relationship between Ireland and Britain. “It is a relationship that could work to the advantage of both Ireland and Britain. There is about €1 billion in trade every week between the two islands.”

A venue for the event next week has yet to be confirmed by Co-operation Ireland, which works to build bridges between divided communities on the island. It is understood the meeting will take place without cameras being present, before the queen, Mr McGuinness and other guests, including President Michael D Higgins and Mr Robinson, join the main event, which will be covered by the media.

It had been believed plans for a large celebration of the queen’s jubilee, to be held at Stormont during her two-day visit, made it more difficult for republicans to hold a meeting there. But a separate engagement involving not only the queen but also President Higgins would provide a more acceptable backdrop for Sinn Féin.

Additional reporting: PA

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