Former IRA commander to meet Queen Elizabeth II

June 22, 2012 - 12:51 PM
Britain Royal Ascot

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II arrives with Prince Philip by carriage in the parade ring on the fourth day of Royal Ascot horse race meeting at Ascot, England, Friday, June 22, 2012. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

LONDON (AP) — The Irish Republican Army-linked Sinn Fein party says one of its leaders, Martin McGuinness, will meet Queen Elizabeth II next week — a once-unthinkable symbol of progress toward peace in Northern Ireland.

McGuinness, a former IRA commander, has been invited to attend an event with the queen in his role as deputy first minister of Northern Ireland's Catholic-Protestant power-sharing government.

Neither Sinn Fein nor Buckingham Palace revealed detailed plans for the meeting. Britain's Press Association news agency said McGuiness and the queen would meet and shake hands in a private room at the beginning of the engagement. But even if it amounts to little more than a quick handshake, the meeting will have great symbolic value.

The queen and her husband, Prince Philip, will visit Northern Ireland on Tuesday and Wednesday as part of her United Kingdom-wide tour celebrating 60 years on the throne.

Sinn Fein leaders declined to meet the queen last year during her first state visit to the neighboring Republic of Ireland, arguing it was still too soon after the end of decades of conflict and bloodshed.

But party President Gerry Adams said Friday the party has decided McGuinness should meet the monarch, a decision that is sure to meet opposition from some Irish republicans, who want to end British rule in Northern Ireland.

"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," Adams said.

"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," he added.

Buckingham Palace said it understood McGuinness had been invited to Wednesday's event in Belfast for the Co-operation Ireland charity, which works to bring Catholic and Protestant communities together.

It was a sign of progress toward peace that the royal visit was announced several weeks in advance.

The queen has regularly visited Northern Ireland over the past four decades of bloodshed, but none of her previous visits had been announced even a minute ahead of time to minimize the risk of attack.

Threats against the royal family have been real, as evidenced by the Provisional IRA's 1979 assassination of Lord Louis Mountbatten, Prince Philip's 79-year-old uncle. Several small IRA splinter groups still launch gun and bomb attacks in Northern Ireland.

But the situation has been transformed since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 brought a virtual end to a conflict, known as "the Troubles," that saw about 3,000 deaths over three decades.

Political reconciliation has advanced rapidly since 2005, when the Provisional IRA renounced violence and disarmed, and 2007, when Sinn Fein entered a power-sharing government alongside Northern Ireland's British Protestant majority. Their unlikely coalition has proved remarkably stable.

The meeting with McGuinness follows the queen's historic visit to the Ireland in May 2011, the first by a British monarch since the republic gained its independence from Britain almost a century ago.

During the trip she laid a wreath at a monument to Irish rebels who fought against British rule, spoke a few words in Irish during a speech, and expressed sympathy "to all those who have suffered as a consequence of our troubled past."

McGuinness has since said he was struck by these gestures of reconciliation.

Peter Hain, a former Northern Ireland secretary in the British government, said the meeting is "of huge historic importance."

"It does not mean Sinn Fein have departed one inch from their commitment to an independent Ireland. Nor does it mean the queen will forget the assassination of her uncle, Lord Mountbatten," Hain said.

"But it does show in shining terms how everybody is turning their backs on the past of horror and violence and moving towards peace between previously bitter enemies," he added.