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What happened when Martin McGuinness met the Queen of England

Arms were put down and hands were extended.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

IT WAS ONCE unthinkable.

A former member of the Provisional IRA’s Army Council shaking hands with a woman who epitomised everything he had fought against for decades.

The same could be said of Queen Elizabeth II. Here was a woman who was the public face of the oppressing force for many in Northern Ireland. Her close cousin Lord Mountbatten was killed by an IRA bomb as he holidayed in Sligo in 1979. And yet, there they were, shaking hands. At a reception dinner, McGuinness stood for the national anthem he had vowed to resist for all of his life.

It was a far cry from Derry’s Bogside where he honed his skills as a republican paramilitary.

After their famous handshake on 27 June 2012, McGuinness was asked how it went, responding: “Good, it went really well,” before adding with a smile: “I’m still a republican.” The pair met at a Cooperation Ireland event in Belfast, attended by the Queen while she was in the North on a two-day Diamond Jubilee visit.

This was the McGuinness of the Good Friday Agreement era. He knew, for all it drove a wedge between himself and hardline republicans, that reconciliation was the only way forward if he were to live to see a United Ireland. He did not live long enough for that to happen. However, it is fitting that McGuinness passed at a time when the reunification of this island is a topic of discussion both in Ireland and in Great Britain.

Royal visit to Northern Ireland - Day 2 Queen Elizabeth II arrives to meet Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson. Source: Paul Faith

Martin McGuinness death Queen Elizabeth II shaking hands with the late Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness in 2012. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

In their second meeting in 2016, Queen Elizabeth cracked a few pointed jokes as she met Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness at Hillsborough Castle in Down. This was as part of a two-day visit to the North.

“Hello, are you well?” McGuinness asked as he extended his hand in greeting to the monarch in a televised meeting.

“I’m still alive anyway,” Queen Elizabeth laughed, shaking his hand.

The significance of the meetings between these two polar opposites did not go unnoticed. The move was welcomed by the established political leaders on both sides of the Irish Sea.

Dissenters were vocal about their unhappiness with McGuinness. To some republicans, his shaking hands with the Queen was the ultimate betrayal, a rejection of an oath he took when he joined the IRA. Even now, there are still raw feelings over the meeting. Sinn Féin’s grassroots members were irked, while more hardline republicans, including members of the Éirigí group called him a hypocrite for attending a banquet, standing for God Save the Queen, while families in the North relied on food banks to survive.

Portrait of Queen Queen Elizabeth II and Martin McGuinness attend a Cooperation Ireland Reception at Crosby Hall on November 8, 2016 in London. Source: Jeff Spicer

But for McGuinness, this was a necessary evil. He knew he had to lead by example. If a man who once vowed to eradicate a British presence in Ireland can lay down his arms and extend his hand to a person who personifies everything the armed struggle stood against, it sent the message that peace and the politics of the North could finally mix.

Read: Martin McGuinness has died at the age of 66 >

Read: ‘He served the people of Northern Ireland’: Tributes pour in across the political divide for Martin McGuinness >

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