McGuinness’s admiration for the queen was striking and unexpected

British monarch’s contribution to peace process has been undermined by Brexit

Queen Elizabeth shakes hands with then Northern Ireland deputy first minister Martin McGuinness watched by then first minister Peter Robinson (centre) at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. Photograph:  Pacemaker Press/ PA

Queen Elizabeth shakes hands with then Northern Ireland deputy first minister Martin McGuinness watched by then first minister Peter Robinson (centre) at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. Photograph: Pacemaker Press/ PA

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The warm and open-hearted message from Queen Elizabeth to all Irish people on the centenary of the establishment of Northern Ireland was a timely antidote to the tribal politics of division and conflict currently being pursued by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin.

In contrast to the DUP’s doomed campaign to undermine the protocol on trade agreed between the UK government and the European Union, and Sinn Féin’s pursuit of a united Ireland agenda, designed to infuriate unionists of all shades, the queen’s positive message was an encouragement to harmony and co-operation.

She made the point that the Government of Ireland Act of 1921, which institutionalised partition, not only marked a significant centenary for both the United Kingdom and the Irish State but provided an opportunity for all shades of opinion to reflect on “our togetherness and our diversity”.

She pointed out that in Northern Ireland today there was a richer mix of identities, backgrounds and aspirations than ever before, accompanied by an outward-looking and optimistic mindset. “The political progress in Northern Ireland and the peace process is rightly credited to a generation of leaders who had the vision and courage to put reconciliation before division. But, above all, the continued peace is a credit to its people, upon whose shoulders the future rests.”

It was notable that the queen also made a positive reference to the Irish State which emerged from the conflict of a century ago. “I also wish to recognise the important contribution made by our friends and closest neighbours towards the success of Northern Ireland. I look back with fondness on the visit Prince Philip and I paid to Ireland, 10 years ago this month. I treasure my many memories, and the spirit of goodwill I saw at first hand.”

It is just a pity that the mood of genuine respect and optimism that followed from the two state visits has faded since then

The queen’s message brought back a memory to this journalist of an unusual encounter I had with the then Sinn Féin deputy first minister, the late Martin McGuinness, in April 2014. It took place during the historic state visit of President Higgins and his wife, Sabina, to the UK which followed on from the royal visit to the Republic three years earlier.

One of the events during the President’s visit was a reception at Windsor Castle which focused on Northern Ireland. After the speeches were over and the queen was circulating among the guests, McGuinness approached me for an informal chat about the political situation North and South. I was astonished to hear him remarking on how much he admired the British monarch.

“That remarkable woman has made a great contribution to peace in Ireland,” he said, pointing to the queen. “Shaking hands with me was an important step in cementing the peace process and I hold her in great esteem for doing something that can’t have been easy for her.” He quickly added: “Mind you, as an Irish republican from the Fenian tradition, it was also a huge thing for me to shake her hand so don’t underestimate that either.”

McGuinness’s expression of admiration and respect for the queen was so striking and unexpected that I noted down his comments although they were not intended for publication at the time.

What is needed now is a determined effort to dampen down tension by avoiding provocative and pointless speculation about an imminent united Ireland

It is just a pity that the mood of genuine respect and optimism that followed from the two state visits has faded since then. Probably the most important factor leading to that deterioration has been Brexit. That decision by the British people reawakened passions that the peace process had done so much to assuage. Republicans have been emboldened by the prospect of a break-up of the UK to seek a border poll at the earliest opportunity while unionists have been left angry and fearful by the British government’s decision to agree an economic border in the Irish Sea.

What is needed now from responsible political leaders in Ireland is a determined effort to dampen down tension by avoiding provocative and pointless speculation about an imminent united Ireland. On the UK side it would be a help if those in government were clear about the fact that there is no prospect of abandoning the Northern Ireland protocol.

Those who care about the future peace and prosperity of both parts of Ireland will be heartened by the queen’s wise words. It is probably worth recalling that her grandfather, George V, made an important contribution to bringing the violence of an earlier era to an end when he addressed the opening session of the Northern Ireland parliament at Stormont on June 22nd, 1921.

“I speak from a full heart when I pray that my coming to Ireland today may prove to be the first step towards an end of strife among her peoples, whatever their race or creed. In that hope I appeal to all Irish men to pause, to stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation, to forgive and forget and to join in making for the land which they love a new era of peace, contentment and goodwill.”

The king’s words were a catalyst in prompting Lloyd George’s government to start the negotiations which brought the violence of the 1916-1921 period to an end. It would be appropriate if, a century later, his granddaughter’s message resonated as strongly with current political leaders.

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