27 Jun 2012

Ireland peace process: Healing handshake?

Correspondent

Anglo-Irish relations take an historic step forward as the Queen shakes hands with Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness in Belfast.

Two handshakes took place at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre. The first was out of public view in a room usually filled with toddlers enjoying story-telling sessions or drama students taking part in workshops. The second was very much in full view of the media, recording the moment for posterity.

Largely symbolic, the move would have been out of the question little over a decade ago. The Queen’s visit to the Irish Republic last year went some way to appeasing critics.

This much-scrutinised visit saw the Queen and Mr McGuinness’s handshake witnesseD by the Duke of Edinburgh, Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson, Irish President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina.

The handshake has been hailed as hugely significant by peace campaigners, while Mr McGuinness said it would reach out to hundreds of thousands of unionists.

Healing

Peter Sheridan, chief executive of Co-operation Ireland, a charity which promotes peace in Northern Ireland and the Republic, said the gesture would alter things irrevocably.

“From my perspective it’s a huge act of reconciliation, you cannot underestimate how important this is. Whoever would have thought we would ever be in this situation? It says a lot about healing, human dignity and treating each other with respect.

“I think after today all of us will say things have changed, for me that’s the significance of it.”

Sinn Fein, which has become increasingly popular south of the Irish border as the main party opposing an EU/IMF bailout, is keen to bolster its image as a mainstream organisation and distance itself from a violent past that alienates many southern voters.

Sinn Fein still wants a referendum on whether Northern Ireland should remain part of Britain, where its members still refuse to take their parliamentary seats, but in the short term its aim is to be in government north and south simultaneously.