Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness met and shook hands with British monarch Elizabeth Windsor today, both in private and in the presence of an official photographer. The unprecented event has provoked protest and division among Irish nationalists and republicans.
The initial handshake took place in a room within Belfast’s Lyric theatre behind closed doors, and little is known of what took place. A second encounter, as the British monarch was leaving the theatre, was recorded by photographers and released to the media.
Windsor is the head of Britain’s armed forces, the occupying troops in the North of Ireland. McGuinness served for many years as a commander within the Provisional IRA, but is now the Deputy First Minister in the local power-sharing administration in the north of Ireland.
In a quiet space used by the theater for creative learning, the two met privately and were joined by Windsor’s husband, Philip Sonderburg-Glucksburg (‘Prince Philip’ or ‘the Duke of Edinburgh’) the North’s First Minister Peter Robinson, President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina.
A Sinn Féin spokesman said that in that meeting, Mr McGuinness “emphasised the need to acknowledge the pain of all victims of the conflict and their families.” He said Mr McGuinness told Windsor that their meeting was a “powerful signal that peace-building requires leadership”.
The meeting was seen as a provocative act by some republican groups and heavy rioting broke out in west Belfast last night. The PSNI said nine of its members were injured as petrol bombs were thrown near the Falls Road.
The violence followed clashes on Black mountain yesterday as loyalists attacked nationalist protestors and pulled apart a giant sign erected in opposition to the queen’s visit. There were reports of continuing disturbances at the same location today.
Twenty thousand loyalists are currently gathering in the grounds of Stormont parliament buildings for a ‘party’ to mark the royal visit and the 60th anniversary of Windsor’s coronation.
Photographs of the encounter have been published in the major international media this afternoon, and most have hailed the event as a sign of peace in Ireland.
Speaking as he left the Lyric Theatre this afternoon, Mr McGuinness said that the meeting went “really well”. He also added, “I’m still a republican.” Asked how it was to meet the queen, he said that it was “very nice”.