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Historic handshake: Queen Elizabeth and ex-IRA leader

  • Article by: SCOTT GILLESPIE
  • Star Tribune
  • June 27, 2012 - 3:52 PM

I first visited Ireland in 1981, while studying abroad as part of a University of Wisconsin program in London. Although my family’s roots are in Northern Ireland, I’ll admit I didn’t have the courage to visit Ulster.

We could see and feel the Irish Republican Army’s threat in London, where tight security was part of daily life. It seemed too risky to strap on the backpack and walk the streets of Belfast. And the beer was just as good in Cork and Dublin.

I regretted that decision for years, but I was fortunate enough to get a chance to visit the north with my two brothers in December 2000, just a couple of years after the worst single attack in the conflict — the car bombing in Omagh that killed 29 people, including a woman pregnant with twins, and injured hundreds. The bombing was carried out by the Real IRA, a splinter republican paramilitary group, and the atrocity sickened Ireland and the world.

Although Omagh and the Troubles were very much on the minds of those we visited with in 2000, there were signs of hope. The peace process finally took hold in Northern Ireland in the years after our visit, but it was still remarkable to see the photo that appeared on the Star Tribune’s website Wednesday: former IRA commander Martin McGuinness shaking hands with Queen Elizabeth II (see photo above).

McGuinness was the IRA’s chief of staff in 1979, when the group killed the queen’s cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten, by blowing up his yacht. Today McGuinness leads the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party, as well as heading the unity government along with Protestant Peter Robinson. That coalition is credited with holding the peace process together after the country’s 1998 peace agreement and the IRA’s 2005 disarmament.

Writing before the handshake, Belfast Telegraph columnist Ed Curran captured the optimism in Northern Ireland, even as its people deal with difficult economic times.

“While no one should underestimate the significance of this mutual gesture between a British monarch and a former IRA leader, there is more to the new Northern Ireland than a handshake,” Curran wrote.

“The Queen’s visit could not come at a better time. ...She will find a Northern Ireland more at ease with itself than at any time in her 60-year reign.

“And in the handshakes — not just with a Sinn Fein deputy First Minister, but many other people of unionist and nationalist persuasion — she should sense that we who live here are coming to terms with one another slowly, but surely. Trickles of tolerance are starting to replace the waterfalls of distrust.”

That’s progress worth celebrating, especially in these troubled times.

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Scott Gillespie is the Star Tribune's editorial page editor.

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