Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, a former Irish Republican Army leader, met and shook hands with Queen Elizabeth II today.
McGuinness became the first Sinn Fein leader to meet a British monarch when the pair attended an event in Belfast today as Queen Elizabeth continues a tour of the U.K. as part of her Jubilee celebrations. She arrived in the region yesterday.
Sinn Fein boycotted the Queen’s visit to the Republic of Ireland last year, the first trip of its kind since the state gained independence from Britain in 1921. The party said the visit was “premature.” McGuinness said this week he’ll meet the monarch this time as an “act of reconciliation” toward unionists in Northern Ireland. A riot in West Belfast last night signaled the tensions around the move.
“This is very important symbolically,” Pete Shirlow, a politics lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast, said. “In the past McGuinness would have had nothing to do with the British monarchy. Our peace process is successful, but it’s slow.”
The pair met at the Lyric Theatre, according to the British Broadcasting Corp., which aired pictures of the handshake.
Nine police officers were hurt in rioting in west Belfast when a crowd of around 100 people threw petrol bombs and bricks, the Police Service of Northern Ireland said.
The violence followed a confrontation between loyalists, who want to keep Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom, and dissident republicans who were protesting at the Queen’s visit. More than 20 petrol bombs were thrown, police said, with officers receiving minor injuries.
Northern Ireland’s power-sharing assembly was revived in 2007 following an IRA decision to decommission its weapons and pursue a united Ireland goal peacefully. Sinn Fein is the second biggest party in the assembly, with McGuinness one of its key leaders, along with Gerry Adams.
In 2001, McGuinness told a state tribunal that he was second-in-command of the IRA in Derry in 1972. He says he left the IRA in 1974.
Around 3,500 people were killed during Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’, with the IRA responsible for half of the deaths in a conflict that began in 1969 and largely ended with a 1998 peace deal which paved the way for the power-sharing assembly. Queen Elizabeth’s cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten, was killed by the IRA in 1979 when a bomb exploded under his fishing boat. His grandson also died in the attack.
Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Peter Robinson, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, which shares power with McGuinness, welcomed the Sinn Fein decision to meet the Queen. He said it was a “step in the right direction,” in an interview aired by the BBC on June 23.
“We think it is right the Queen should meet representatives from all parts of the community,” Prime Minister David Cameron’s spokesman, Steve Field, told reporters today.