The Queen begins her two-day Diamond Jubilee visit to Northern Ireland, which will include a historic meeting with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.
The monarch will shake hands with the Stormont deputy first minister – a former IRA commander – on Wednesday in a gesture which will herald another milestone in Anglo-Irish relations.
Speaking ahead of the meeting, Mr McGuinness made reference to a famous remark by former prime minister Tony Blair before the 1998 Good Friday peace deal: “There was a lot of talk in the past about someone feeling the hand of history on his shoulder.
“This is about stretching out the hand of peace and reconciliation to Queen Elizabeth, who represents hundreds of thousands of unionists in the north.
“It is about me representing my party, wishing to show the unionist people in the north that we are prepared to respect what they believe in, albeit that we are still Irish republicans.
“I am an Irish republican now – after I meet with Queen Elizabeth, I will still be an Irish republican, and just as passionate about freedom, justice and peace, and reconciliation, as I was the day before.”
News of the meeting and its importance has provoked strong opinions on both sides of the border.
Brian Hayes is a minister of state in the Republic’s finance department.
He said: “Sinn Fein agonising about a handshake with the Queen is a bit like a bunch of theologians discussing how many angels can stand on a pin. We have moved on. As usual Sinn Fein is trailing behind.
“Perhaps someone should give Martin McGuinness a perfumed handkerchief and a bottle of smelling salts in case he finds the ordeal of shaking hands with the Queen all too much for his delicate republican constitution.”
Eamon Mallie, writer on Irish affairs, told Channel 4 News: “This is a guy who attended IRA ceasefire talks in 1972 with a gun in his pocket.
“The IRA tried to kill ministers in the British government and now this guy is going to shake hands with the Queen.
“The whole impact of this will be positive – it will psychogolically change people and will encourage flexibility.”
The decision was criticised by Irish republican party Eirigi. In a statement, it said: ““Meeting with and recognising Elizabeth Windsor as head of the British state in Ireland is but another step along the disreputable path of reformism and one more premeditated and calculated step further away from the revolutionary goal of establishing a free, sovereign and socialist Republic in Ireland.”
Like previous royal visits to Northern Ireland, very few details about the itinerary have been officially released due to security concerns.
But the Queen, joined by the Duke of Edinburgh, will visit Enniskillen, County Fermanagh later on Tuesday where she will attend a service of thanksgiving at the town’s St Macartin’s Church of Ireland Cathedral.
The town was rocked by an IRA bomb on Remembrance Sunday 1987 in which 11 people died.