Queen, former IRA boss in historic handshake
YUSUFF ALI Sunday, July 1 2012
I have been following developments in Northern Ireland since the late 1960s, first as News Director of TTT and later as a resident in the UK. In all that time, a period of more than 40 years, the possibility of the Queen meeting a former IRA commander, let alone shaking hands with him, never crossed my mind. Yet, this is what happened on Wednesday.
On a two-day visit to Northern Ireland, the Queen met former IRA chief Martin McGuinness behind closed doors at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre. The meeting took place during a charity event celebrating the arts.
They later shook hands in public as if to confirm their earlier momentous encounter, putting aside for a brief while any thoughts of the past. Their meeting came 33 years after the IRA murdered the Queen’s cousin, Lord Mountbatten, at a time when Mr McGuinness was said to be the IRA’s second in command.
As he held on to the monarch’s hand for a few moments, he spoke to her in Irish and told her the words meant, “Goodbye and God’s speed.” Asked by reporters as he was leaving how the encounter went, he said it had been “very nice”. The Queen and Prince Philip later took part in a Diamond Jubilee party, attended by 20,000 people on the grounds of Stormont, the seat of government in Northern Ireland.
They were driven through the grounds in an open-topped vehicle before ending their two-day visit.
The day before, the Queen comforted victims of one of the IRA’s worst terrorist massacres. She went to Enniskillen, where 12 people died and 63 were wounded 25 years ago in a Poppy Day bomb attack on Protestant families commemorating the dead of two world wars at a remembrance service.
The 86-year-old monarch spent 20 minutes talking in private to seven relatives who lost loved ones in the attack.
The outrage was carried out at a time when British and Irish intelligence officials say Mr McGuinness was in overall charge of the IRA’s Northern Command and, hence, responsible for the attack.
Before his meeting with the Queen, he said, “This is about stretching out the hand of peace and reconciliation to Queen Elizabeth, who represents hundreds of thousands of unionists in the north. I am an Irish Republican now.
After meeting the Queen, I will still be an Irish Republican, and just as passionate about freedom, justice, peace and reconciliation.”
In 1977, the graffiti on Belfast’s Falls Road spelled out the Republicans’ position on the Queen’s silver jubilee. The message was, “Victory to the IRA. Stuff the jubilee.” As the Queen marked 25 years of her reign, the IRA chalked up another year in its long “war”. Mr McGuinness, who joined the organisation as a teenager, had to go on the run shortly afterwards, but he was caught and imprisoned for his IRA membership. However, throughout what became known as the Troubles, he aligned himself with the IRA.
The eve of the Queen’s visit in 1977 fell on the anniversary of internment without trial. The night was hot and riotous and Republicans vented their fury. The Queen’s party stayed on the Royal yacht Britannia amid tight security.
In a speech in Coleraine, the Queen spoke of her deep concern and sadness at the Troubles. She said, “No one could remain unmoved by the violence and the grief that follows it.” Two years later, Lord Mountbatten was murdered by the IRA on his boat off the coast of Sligo.
Speaking some years afterwards to members of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, Mr McGuinness declared, “Our position is clear and it will never, never, never change. The war against British rule must continue until freedom is achieved.”
But as part of the peace process, the IRA wound down its terrorist activities and decommissioned its weapons. Mr McGuinness became deputy first minister in 2005 and took further steps towards peace. But to meet the Queen in Dublin last year was a step too far. To the surprise of many, the monarch laid a wreath for Republican dead and spoke in Irish.
Within months, the attitude of the deputy first minister shifted. He praised the Queens’s dignity in Dublin and hinted that a meeting was possible. Well, the meeting has now taken place to the delight of many. But it was too much for some in Republican West Belfast. Their message via fresh graffiti was, “Shove your jubilee Lizzie.”