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UDA chiefs join Queen at Irish War Memorial

Loyalist paramilitary bosses have come face to face with the Queen in Dublin.

Jackie McDonald led a delegation of UDA chiefs at a wreath-laying ceremony in the Irish War Memorial Garden in Dublin yesterday and was among a small group of guests specially selected for a receiving line to greet the monarch.

Frankie Gallagher, from the Ulster Political Research Group, the UDA's political wing, and other UDA leaders John Bunting, Jimmy Birch and Billy McFarland were also among the loyalist contingent which had travelled south of the border to attend the event on day two of the historic state visit.

McDonald, who is a frequent guest of the Irish President Mary McAleese and her husband Dr Martin McAleese, was not close enough to shake the Queen's hand, but she smiled and nodded as she was swiftly guided past.

Both President and Dr McAleese acknowledged the loyalists as they walked along the line-up.

Speaking afterwards, Mr McDonald spoke of his pride and delight at being invited to the ceremony.

He said: “I am very proud for the people we represent, the ex- combatants, the loyalist ex-prisoners, ones who made this possible, who supported us through the transition from where we were to where we are, and will support us to where we need to be.

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“It's one of the keystones of the whole peace process. The whole transition from where we were to where we are, and again where we need to be. This is sending a message to everybody that there are so many similarities — graveyards like this, memorial gardens throughout the country where so many people from both sides of the border fought in the wars — we have so much in common and we need to make more people aware of that.”

The Queen had been at Islandbridge on the outskirts of Dublin to lay a poppy wreath in honour of the 50,000 Irish soldiers who died during the Great War.

First Minister Peter Robinson was among a number of Northern Ireland political party leaders who also attended the memorial service.

He said he had been “disappointed” by Sinn Fein's absence at any of the Royal engagements.

“I think they have missed an opportunity,” he said. “It would have been altogether appropriate for them to come here to represent their section of the community. However, I am encouraged to see they have taken a non-aggressive, if not benign, neutrality on the visit of Queen Elizabeth II.

“We have been sweeping taboos out of the way for a very long time and this is yet another one. I wonder why it has taken so long.”

Commenting on the presence of loyalist paramilitaries, Mr Robinson said their invitation was a progressive step.

“I cannot but remember the extent to which people have stretched over the years to bring republicans in from the dark. It is important that people embrace the democratic future rather than sniping from the sidelines. I am glad that they want to take part and I think they should be encouraged.”

The visit of the Irish and British heads of state to Islandbridge is a public acknowledgement of a hugely significant event in the shared history of the two countries. It echoed the symbolic moment of reconciliation in 1998 when the Queen and President McAleese unveiled a tower on the site of the battle of Messines Ridge in memory of the Irish dead of World War I, and to inaugurate the Island of Ireland Peace Park. That inauguration was the first public event undertaken jointly by an Irish and British head of state.

After the Queen and President McAleese laid their wreaths a minute's silence was observed. As The Last Post was sounded the tricolour was hoisted to full mast and the Irish national anthem was played. Earlier the Irish combined military band had played God Save The Queen.

The Queen was then escorted from the Cenotaph to view the Book of the Dead and Ginchy Cross.

Afterwards SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie was among the line-up of diginitaries and war veterans permitted to shake hands with the Queen. Noticeably the South Down MLA, who was the first nationalist leader to wear a poppy during Remembrance Day service last year, did not curtsy when being addressed by the Queen.

“I have never done that,” she said. “I don't see the opportunity or the need to do that. But I was very happy to welcome her.

“It was a wonderful occasion for the island of Ireland, both North and South, and I am very happy, as leader of the SDLP, to welcome the Queen as a representative.”

Alex Attwood from the SDLP, UUP leader Tom Elliott and Alliance leader David Ford were also present.

Meanwhile, a crowd of up to 20 Orangemen from both sides of the border were among the invited guests.

Grand Master Edward Stevenson, who was wearing a poppy along with his orange sash, described it as an “honour” to have been there.

“It was a very special ceremony,” he said. “We are delighted to be here and it was a privilege to be asked. We have members on both sides of the border and we have a large membership within the Republic of Ireland.

“I think we have been recognised, especially the members within the Republic, their British identity has been recognised by the visit of Her Majesty. We believe they will be encouraged by it.

“It's going down very well within our membership. We are delighted to be here. We have no problems coming to Dublin.”

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