Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 25 December 2014

Queen-McGuinness meeting 'private'

Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness will hold an historic first meeting with Britain's Queen next week
Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness will hold an historic first meeting with Britain's Queen next week

The historic handshake planned between Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and Martin McGuinness is to take place behind closed doors, it has emerged.

The Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister will attend a cross-border event in Belfast on Wednesday, which President Michael D Higgins will also attend.

But the initial meeting and handshake between Queen Elizabeth and the senior Sinn Fein representative is expected to take place in a private room at the beginning of the engagement, sources close to the planning have said. The meeting is nevertheless being seen as a major milestone in efforts to normalise relations between nationalists and unionists.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams confirmed that his party's ruling executive had backed the planned meeting, but he added: "This will understandably cause difficulties for some republicans and nationalists, especially for those folks who suffered at the hands of British forces."

The leading peace charity Co-operation Ireland is to host the event for Queen Elizabeth and Mr Higgins to celebrate the arts and culture across the island at Belfast's Lyric Theatre on Wednesday. It is understood the meeting will take place without cameras being present, before the Queen, Mr McGuinness and other key guests including Mr Higgins and Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson join the main event, which will be covered by the media.

Sinn Fein's ruling council, the ard comhairle, met for four hours in Dublin before announcing its decision to accept the invitation made to Mr McGuinness. Mr Adams said Sinn Fein wanted to see a new republic in which the traditions of orange and green could be brought together in a cordial union. The ard comhairle decision was not unanimous but was a clear majority, the party confirmed.

There has been speculation since Queen Elizabeth's momentous visit to Ireland in May last year that a senior Sinn Fein figure would meet her during the two-day trip planned for Northern Ireland next week to mark her Diamond Jubilee. Mr McGuinness, a former IRA commander, was always the candidate to shake the Queen's hand but delicate talks have been going on for months to arrange a suitable venue and occasion. Sinn Fein has stressed the meeting is not a celebration of the Jubilee.

Mr Adams said of the party's decision: "We don't have to do it. We're doing it because it's the right thing to do, despite the fact that it will cause difficulties for our own folk. But it's good for Ireland. It's good for this process we're trying to develop. It's the right time and the right reason. After Martin McGuinness completes this engagement he will be as true, as staunch, as active a republican as he ever was."

Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who was in Scotland at the British-Irish Council summit, which was also attended by Mr McGuinness, said he had been confident the handshake would be agreed to. 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 said a refusal to shake hands would have been a very retrograde step.

Mr Adams called for support for the royal meeting and handshake from republicans and nationalists and said it was a "symbolic and significant step". He urged people opposed to the move to protest peacefully.

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