LONDON — Queen Elizabeth II shook hands with a former Irish Republican Army commander on Wednesday during a meeting in Belfast that seemed destined for the history books as a milestone in Anglo-Irish relations.
For decades, Martin McGuinness was an avowed enemy of the British Empire — a representative of a paramilitary group that in 1979 killed the queen’s beloved cousin Louis Mountbatten.
But in a potent sign of just how far the peace process in Northern Ireland has come, the queen and McGuinness — now deputy first minister in Northern Ireland’s provincial government — exchanged pleasantries at a meeting that would have been difficult for McGuinness’s Irish nationalist party, Sinn Fein, to stomach even a few years ago.
“You could see it as a last piece in a jigsaw peace process, which has been very slowly and carefully put together over 20 years,” said Diarmaid Ferriter, a professor of modern history at University College Dublin.
The queen, smiling and wearing a mint-green hat and dress, extended her gloved hand to an equally gracious-looking McGuinness. The moment was caught on cameras and beamed around the world.
But not all of Britain’s royalist tabloids were convinced the gesture was easy for the queen. The Daily Mail worried that in shaking McGuinness’s hand, “the Queen will be performing one of the most distasteful duties of her reign.”
Organized by a charity in Belfast that works to bring Catholic and Protestant communities together, the carefully choreographed meeting was also attended by Peter Robinson, the first minister of Northern Ireland, and Michael Higgins, the president of Ireland.
McGuinness previously had described the event to the Belfast Telegraph as “stretching out the hand of peace and reconciliation to Queen Elizabeth, who represents hundreds of thousands of unionists in the north.”
The queen helped pave the way for the handshake last year, when she became the first reigning British monarch to visit Ireland since it gained independence from Britain in 1922. Her trip was hailed as a success and has helped reshape the language around Anglo-Irish relations, which are as warm as they have ever been.
Prince Charles, the queen’s eldest son, said in a recent television special that his mother’s 2011 visit to Ireland was “in many ways . . . her greatest achievement.” Her itinerary was marked by events acknowledging the strained and often bloody history between Britain and Ireland.
Sinn Fein boycotted that visit, but McGuinness has since spoken of how moved he was by many of the queen’s gestures, including her speech — partly in Irish Gaelic — at Dublin Castle, and her placing a wreath at a garden that honors republicans who died fighting for Ireland’s freedom, often at the hands of the British.
Analysts said Wednesday’s meeting also represented a strategic move by the media-savvy Sinn Fein party — not only the largest Catholic political party in Northern Ireland, but also a growing political force in the Republic of Ireland — to reinforce its high profile and bolster its image as a party that is relevant and in the public eye.
While the rocky road to peace in Northern Ireland is largely seen as bedded down now, with a stable Protestant-Catholic power-sharing government, several small splinter groups of the IRA still exist, fighting for an end to British rule on the island.
Overnight Tuesday, rioting in a Catholic neighborhood in west Belfast left nine police officers injured, highlighting the tensions that remain on the ground between the mainly Protestant unionists and Catholic republicans.
But the political landscape in Northern Ireland has transformed dramatically since the Troubles, the colloquial name here for the three decades of armed conflict and bloodshed that largely ended with the 1998 Good Friday peace accord.
Still, the image of the queen, the symbolic head of the British armed forces, and McGuinness, the former leader of the IRA, shaking hands would have been unthinkable even a few years ago, when Northern Ireland was struggling to create a police and justice system that had the confidence of both the Catholic and Protestant communities.