It was one of those 'pinch yourself' moments of the peace process – a smartly-dressed Martin McGuinness strolling confidently into Windsor Castle as the Queen's guest, wearing what he called his "penguin suit".
In scenes that would have been unimaginable and impossible a few years ago, the former
IRA commander drank a toast to both the Queen and the Irish President — the former a drink which would have tasted like poison to republicans from the not-so-distant past.
He stood for the B
ritish national anthem and listened intently as the Queen and Michael D Higgins talked about the pain of the past — and of the victims of violence — and talked up the future between the “good neighbours and good friends” of Ireland and Britain.
As he tucked into his fillet of Isle of Gigha halibut, Mr McGuinness must have allowed himself a momentary reflection on the first time he came to London. It was 42 years ago during the bloodiest year of the
Troubles at the invitation of the British State — which he was trying to drive out of Ireland.
Back then, the modern-day Deputy First Minister was an olden-day IRA leader on a cloak-and-digger trip to a house in upmarket Chelsea for secret and ultimately fruitless talks with the Tory Government about the Provo campaign.
The then Secretary of State Willie Whitelaw didn’t quite roll out the red carpet for McGuinness and his five republican colleagues, who included Gerry Adams — although he did roll out the Guinness, which the visitors politely declined.
Last night Mr McGuinness had the full works at a lavish banquet laid on by the Queen for the first State visit to Britain by an Irish President. Michael D Higgins may have been the guest of honour, but he had to compete with the former Derry IRA leader for the attention of the media. And Mr McGuinness played the statesman’s role like he was born to it — observing all the protocols of the occasion, as he dubbed them.
The Queen didn’t mention Mr McGuinness by name or the recent rift between him and Peter Robinson, but she did say: “Our two governments will continue together to work in Northern Ireland to support the First and Deputy First Minister and the Executive to advance the peace process and to establish a shared society based on mutual respect and equality of opportunity.”
Before the banquet Mr McGuinness tweeted a picture of the Irish harp cufflinks he wore to the banquet, jokingly adding: “You really wouldn’t want to see me in the penguin suit.”
Sinn Fein sources have admitted that if anyone had dared to suggest back in the mad old days of 1972 that the erstwhile denim-clad Martin McGuinness would be dressed to the nines to break bread with the Queen at Windsor Castle 42 years later, their sanity – and their sobriety – would have been seriously questioned. In those days Derry City fan Martin McGuinness wouldn’t have set foot in Windsor Park never mind Windsor Castle.
But what was remarkable about last night was that it was in some ways so unremarkable. The dramatic staging posts in the McGuinness journey from paramilitary to politician/ peacemaker have now become almost grist to the run-of-the-mill.
And observers also said last night’s events underlined how Sinn Fein have learnt salutary lessons along their path to find political respectability and acceptability.
For they could have dined with Mrs Windsor – as Gerry Adams once called the Queen – three years ago.
But they said no to Mary McAleese’s invite to a banquet at Dublin Castle in 2011 when the Queen re-shaped formerly fraught Anglo-Irish relations by becoming the first British monarch to visit the Republic.
Privately, Sinn Fein officials now accept they called that one wrong. The people of the Republic warmed to their one-time perceived foe and republicans were left out in the cold — and looking out of touch.
In the centre of Dublin that afternoon I asked Gerry Adams if he would even be watching live TV coverage of the banquet. “I will see all I need on the news,” he said. Yet within a year Martin McGuinness was shaking the hand of the British monarch that republicans would once have gladly shaken by the throat.
The ground-breaking gesture at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre brought the curtain down on centuries of bad blood between Britain and Ireland and in recent times Mr McGuinness has
gone even further, applauding the Queen’s efforts for peace.
Not that his words impressed the IRA’s most implacable opponents — the victims of their 30- year campaign of violence.
Relatives of people killed by the Provos gathered outside Windsor Castle to remind Mr McGuinness that they haven’t forgotten and they most certainly haven’t forgiven. Victor Barker, whose 12 year old son James was killed in the Real IRA’s Omagh bombing in 1998, stood outside the gates of the castle in the town where he was born. His placard read: “A terrorist in white tie and tails is still a terrorist — it’s time to tell the truth.”
The solicitor said: “There is no place for a terrorist at the Queen’s table.”
Relatives of the victims of the Birmingham pub bombings carried a banner saying: “Justice for the 21”.
Julie Hambleton, whose 18- year-old sister Maxine was killed in the atrocity, called for Mr McGuinness to be arrested rather than feted. But the protestors were outnumbered by the well-wishers who turned out to greet Mr Higgins in Windsor, which was bedecked with Irish tricolours as well as Union flags.
Like the Queen’s carefully-orchestrated visit to the Republic, Mr Higgins’s itinerary was also measured to respect the sensitivities of the past.
Just as the Queen had done in Dublin in her tribute to people killed in the fight for Irish independence, Mr Higgins bowed his head at Westminster Abbey as he laid a wreath at the tomb of a British soldier from World War One.
Mr Higgins also paused to remember a more recent victim of conflict — at the memorial to the Queen’s cousin Lord Mountbatten killed in an IRA bomb in 1979. “That was a dreadful day for Ireland,” said one man to a reporter in Windsor last night. “This is a great day for the Irish.”