Why Royal visit will truly be a handshake of history
When the Queen visits Northern Ireland tomorrow, we will be a witness to history in the making. Her visit will be like none other that has gone before.
The handshake with Martin McGuinness will grab the international headlines. 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.
The Queen's visit could not come at a better time. She will see for herself, from Belfast in the east to Enniskillen in the west, how far our society has progressed. 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.
The Queen will see this week a corner of her United Kingdom which has lifted itself off its knees in little more than a decade. The weather may not have changed, but much else has. A remarkable renaissance is taking place.
The different cultures in a divided society are resting more comfortably side-by-side. Perhaps one community no longer feels so threatened by the other, but there is undoubtedly a new spirit of live and let live. As she shakes the hands of Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, the Queen will help to rubber-stamp this new chapter in our troubled history.
There will be no better place to see the changing face of Northern Ireland than in Enniskillen tomorrow, the scene of one of the worst atrocities of our troubled times. The gleaming wards and corridors of the new South-West hospital stand testimony to the spirit of that community.
I hope that, when she travels there, possibly past the very spot of the Remembrance Sunday massacre, she will be greeted by people representing a wide spectrum of west Ulster's society, unionist and nationalist alike, for all have played a part in getting us to where we are today.
True, Northern Ireland still has dinosaurs roaming around in the undergrowth as embittered survivors from the old world of terror. True, we still have a Himalayan mountain to climb, but we are well past first base camp. Through the example of politicians showing more respect for one another, people across the community are doing likewise.
Many problems remain. Northern Ireland cannot escape from the current economic recession sweeping across Europe. While Stormont's coalition brings people together, it is also frustratingly slow to make much-needed legislative change.
As ever, the marching season is under way, the bonfires are in place and the month ahead may have potentially volatile moments. Yet, as another Twelfth approaches, we are nowhere near the dangerous place we were in the past.
No matter the occasional flare-ups, the flying of flags and the wearing of emblems is more tolerated as ever before. Confrontation is slowly being replaced by compromise.
Political and community leaders are working together more often than pulling apart.
Bad enough as the pain of the recession is for many, we all know that it is nothing compared to the suicidal conflict in which Northern Ireland was embroiled for most of the Queen's reign and which touched every family in the land, including her own.
The Queen has played a significant part in the changing face of this island through her truly historic visit to the Republic last year. It now remains to be seen whether her two days in Northern Ireland will yield another dividend in mutual understanding.
This should be the most inclusive visit of her reign. Gone at last are the times when Royal visitors were cloistered in Hillsborough and their garden parties attended by a select band from one side of the community and ignored by the other.
On this occasion, the Queen will have an opportunity to meet more than just unionists and to encounter this province's twin cultural roots. That is as it should be.
Shaking hands with the Queen will not diminish anyone's sense of Irishness. Rather it will show to the world that we are a maturing people, continuing to escape from a dark past and opening our eyes to a brighter future. Together.