A Symbolic Handshake Shows Progress In Northern Ireland

Queen Elizabeth visited Northern Ireland Wednesday and shook hands with Martin McGuinness, former commander of the Provisional Irish Republican Army. The queen's cousin was among the nearly 2,000 victims of the Irish Republicans' violent campaign against British rule.

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In 1990, Nelson Mandela and South African President F.W. de Klerk famously shook hands. So did Israel's Yitzak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 1993. When former enemies finally set aside bloodshed and idealogical differences and, in full view of the world, reach out, history gets made.

And that's what happened today in Northern Ireland. The handshake was between Britain's Queen Elizabeth and Northern Ireland politician Martin McGuinness, once a former commander of the IRA - the Irish Republican Army.

Here's NPR's Philip Reeves.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: A couple of decades ago, this scene was unimaginable. McGuinness is now a top minister in Northern Ireland's government. Back then, he was better known as a senior member of the Irish Republican Army. For the IRA, the queen was head of the hated British forces, whom they were trying to drive out of Northern Ireland.

The monarch and McGuinness shook hands at an arts center in Belfast. The queen is on a brief visit, marking her diamond jubilee. The handshake was carefully planned. McGuinness seemed to enjoy it.

MARTIN MCGUINNESS: It went really well. Very nice.

REEVES: This was not easy for either party. Some three and a half thousand people died in Northern Ireland's 20-year conflict. They include civilians, politicians and British soldiers. They also include mostly Catholic republican paramilitaries, fighting for a united Ireland, and mostly Protestant unionist paramilitaries, fighting to stay in the United Kingdom.

Lord Louis Mountbatten was also among the casualties. Mountbatten was the Queen's cousin, and her husband Prince Philip's uncle. The IRA killed him in 1979.

The Queen smiled as - clad in green, Ireland's national color - she shook the former IRA Commander McGuinness's hand.

For many, the moment signified how far Northern Ireland has come since peace accords were signed 14 years ago. McGuinness is a leading light in the Irish nationalist political party Sinn Fein. Speaking several days ago, he said that handshake was an attempt to reach out to former foes.

MCGUINNESS: So, symbolically, in shaking the hand of Queen Elizabeth, I'm extending the hand of peace and reconciliation to all of my unionist brothers and sisters.

MICHAEL GALLAGHER: It's a much more bigger, symbolic issue than just shaking someone's hand.

REEVES: Michael Gallagher's son and brother were killed by republican paramilitaries.

GALLAGHER: It is sending a message to those thousands of people who followed Sinn Fein that things have changed, that we really have turned a corner and we've got to get on with life.

REEVES: Some republicans accuse McGuinness of selling out. Some unionists are angry, too. And in Belfast, during the queen's visit, there were skirmishes between police and youths hurling petrol bombs.

The British media, though generally positive, printed cartoons of McGuinness offering the Queen a hand dripping with blood. Yet, it seems most see history's latest big handshake as an act of peace-making in a place where there are still many scars and unsettled scores.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, London.

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