kevin cullen

A handshake across a chasm of hate

An ex-IRA leader and, incredibly, the Queen

Queen Elizabeth II and Martin McGuinness will meet next week.

As far as handshakes go, Martin McGuinness pumping the arm of Queen Elizabeth II is one of those “I never thought I’d see that” moments.

Not that you will see it. It’s probably going to happen behind closed doors at a charity event in Belfast next week.

Still, that it will happen at all is a reminder of how history moves in real time, despite its tendency to repeat itself.


McGuinness used to run the Irish Republican Army, and at one point in his life would have given anything to take out the very lady he’s going to shake hands with next week.

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The IRA never did get the queen, but it did get her cousin, Lord Mountbatten, a British war hero. In 1979, an IRA bomb planted on a fishing boat in County Sligo killed Mountbatten, his 14-year-old grandson, the Dowager Lady Brabourne, and a 15-year-old local boy piloting the boat. It was one of the IRA’s most audacious attacks during a 35-year period called, with considerable understatement, The Troubles.

There are many law enforcement officials, Irish and British, who believe McGuinness was running the IRA or was at least on its ruling Army Council, when the plan to blow up Mountbatten was approved. McGuinness admits he was an IRA commander, but insists he left in 1974 to concentrate on politics. He is now the first deputy prime minister of Northern Ireland, which is why he’s going to meet the queen.

Getty Images
McGuinness, former IRA commander.

The war in Northern Ireland has been over for a long time, but it rages on in some minds. There are those who are apoplectic at the thought of anyone who considers himself an Irish republican, let alone a former IRA chief of staff, shaking hands with a British monarch.

“This will understandably cause difficulty for some republicans and nationalists,” said Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader, who knows a thing or two about the significance of once-unthinkable handshakes. “Especially for those folks who suffered at the hands of British forces.”


There are British loyalists and royalists, too, whose stomachs will turn over at the thought of their head of state shaking a hand that they still curse as being covered in blood.

Things change. Hands long balled into fists sometimes wind up clasped in peace, or the semblance of it. In 1992, Nelson Mandela shook hands with F.W. de Klerk, the last of South Africa’s apartheid leaders who had kept him locked up for 27 years. In 1993, PLO chairman Yasser Arafat shook hands with Israel’s prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, on the White House lawn, cementing a peace plan that later fell apart. In 2009, President Obama shook hands with Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy, whose hands were figuratively covered with the blood of hundreds of Americans lost over Lockerbie.

All of those unexpected images were quite public, and quite controversial. But each came at a time when, as Seamus Heaney put it after the IRA’s ceasefire in 1994, hope and history rhymed.

That McGuinness’s encounter with the queen will probably occur out of view is another case of history repeating, like some verse, repeating key lines.

In 1995, there was a big kerfuffle about the prospect of Gerry Adams shaking hands with Sir Patrick Mayhew, Britain’s top official in Northern Ireland. The handshake was historic. But not so historic that it could be seen in public. The belief at the time was that neither side’s base was ready for such blatant civility.


And so it took place behind closed doors at the Sheraton Washington. One of the British officials who put that meeting together and was standing there when Gerry met Paddy was Sir Peter Westmacott, who, like his queen, had lost a cousin to the IRA. Herbert Westmacott was a British officer when he was shot dead in a gunbattle with the IRA in 1980.

British prime ministers now routinely shake hands with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness in public. And Sir Peter Westmacott is now the British ambassador to the United States.

So things change, handshakes come and go, the great world spins, people move on.

Last year, Sinn Fein officials made a point of snubbing the queen’s visit to Ireland, the first by a British monarch since the Republic of Ireland won its independence from Britain in 1922.

The Queen’s visit was, from a public relations point of view, a smashing success, in part because there was very little smashing of windows by those that protested. She showed humility by going to the Garden of Remembrance, dedicated to Irishmen and women who rose in rebellion against the British, and Croke Park, where in 1920 British troops slaughtered innocents in retaliation for IRA assassinations of British agents. She showed respect by opening one of her speeches in the Irish language, a language that some of her ancient predecessors tried to stamp out.

By the time the queen got to the Rock of Cashel, in Tipperary, the wheelchair-bound Sinn Fein mayor of the town, Michael Browne, got swept up in the hoopla and shook Her Majesty’s hand. Party officials criticized Browne for violating a party edict to avoid functions attended by the Queen. But Browne, who died of cancer a month later, was simply ahead of his time.

The Shinners, as they call Sinn Fein, are as savvy at public relations as anyone, and it suits their electoral strategy, north and south, to be seen as magnanimous.

And so, Marty meet Liz.

Martin McGuinness, a very good fly fisherman, and the queen, a fine handicapper of horses, will no doubt get on famously. Things change.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.