The joining of hands yesterday between the Queen and the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness, a former IRA commander, is emblematic of the distance travelled by both communities in the long-divided province over the past four decades.
The message of peace the handshake symbolises is especially powerful as, on both sides, it has personal resonance. In 1979, Lord Mountbatten, a distant cousin of the Queen and uncle of her husband, was killed by the IRA, the organisation in which Mr McGuinness was a figure of authority.
Thirty-three years on and 14 years after the Good Friday Agreement which led to the de-commissioning of paramilitary weapons and the advent of stable, power-sharing government at Stormont, he said shaking the hand of the British monarch was the right thing to do as it would demonstrate that a spirit of generosity on all sides could pay huge dividends for everyone.
That statement and its intent will require a response founded on a generous belief in the basic goodness of human nature on the part of those people understandably suspicious after decades scarred by the Troubles. Against the odds, the ballot has replaced the bullet and hestitant power-sharing has produced a confident coalition administration. Mr McGuinness has led by example. And Tuesday's visit by the Queen to Enniskillen, where in 1987 an IRA device killed 11 civilians at a Remembrance Day service, demonstrated to bereaved families that they have not been forgotten. Also, she visited a Catholic church for the first time in Northern Ireland, another significant milestone in the royal healing process she set in train during her visit to Dublin last year.
Her powerful conciliatory gestures, particularly laying a wreath at the garden of remembrance for those killed in the cause of independence, made Sinn Fein's boycott of that royal visit look churlish.
However, the difficulty in taking the next step to shaking the Queen's hand should not be underestimated, as was clear from the minor trouble in West Belfast on Tuesday night. Mr McGuinness is to be congratulated not just for that final taboo-breaking gesture but for the courageous steps he has taken on the long road to peace since he first engaged in secret talks with the British Government in the 1980s.
The Queen, too, must be given credit for maintaining links with Northern Ireland through the difficulties. The contrast with the Silver Jubilee visit in 1977, when 32,000 troops were on duty to protect the royal couple in Belfast, is a measure of how much progress has been made. Amid a Diamond Jubilee tour of limited substantive import, her visit to a Northern Ireland divesting itself of the shackles of the past is much the more significant.
That the historic handshake took place at an art exhibition organised by the charity Co-operation Ireland, which works to bring communities together, was itself telling. Sinn Fein was unhappy at the prospect of the meeting during the jubilee garden party at Stormont and the charity stepped into the diplomatic breach; a reminder that such events resonate with the people when they occur in their midst. The overwhelming wish of the people of Northern Ireland is to live and work together in peace and that is due to the commitment of ordinary people to bridge the divide through projects like Co-operation Ireland. For their sakes the peace process must continue on the path of reconciliation, however difficult. When a former IRA commander can bid the Queen God speed, old enmities are cast aside and there is renewed hope.
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