Queen and ex-IRA chief's symbolic meeting

SHAWN POGATCHNIK
Last updated 11:49 27/06/2012

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II arrives in Northern Ireland. Rough Cut (no reporter narration).

queen elizabeth
NEW ERA: The British monarch visited the lakeside town of Enniskillen for events symbolising how far Northern Ireland has come from its darkest days of bloodshed.

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Queen Elizabeth II prayed together Tuesday with Catholic and Protestant leaders from across Northern Ireland as this long-divided land demonstrated its rising faith in a shared future - and braced for a peacemaking milestone that has been a quarter-century in the making.

The British monarch visited the lakeside town of Enniskillen, scene of one of the Irish Republican Army's most shocking atrocities, for events symbolising how far Northern Ireland has come from its darkest days of bloodshed. On Wednesday she's expected to meet and shake hands with Martin McGuinness, former commander of the dominant Provisional IRA faction, in what many see as the symbolic conclusion to a four-decade conflict.

Their first-ever contact, long avoided by McGuinness' Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein, follows the Provisional IRA's killing of some 1775 people since 1970, including the queen's own cousin Lord Louis Mountbatten - a 1979 assassination that IRA experts say McGuinness himself sanctioned. McGuinness today is the senior Catholic in Northern Ireland's unity government, an institution forged following the Provisionals' 2005 decision to renounce violence and disarm.

Yet the political difficulties that McGuinness faces are writ large on the Northern Ireland landscape. Catholics and Protestants alike are suddenly ribbing him, if not to his face, as "Sir Martin of Londonderry" - a tongue-in-cheek reference to his home city, because virtually all Irish nationalists reject that British name and use its native Irish name of Derry. Many Protestant leaders and analysts likewise have asserted, triumphantly, that the peace process has left McGuinness with no choice but to bend the knee to the British monarch.

"If Martin McGuinness is to be the deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, he needs to recognise that her majesty is head of state of the United Kingdom," said Jeffrey Donaldson, a lawmaker from the main Protestant party, the Democratic Unionists, which today runs Northern Ireland in an odd but surprisingly stable coalition with Sinn Fein.

"Other than moving into Buckingham Palace and curling up like an old green corgi at the foot of the queen's bed, I'm not sure how much more Sinn Fein could do to indicate that their war has been lost and the surrender terms penned by the British," said Belfast commentator Alex Kane, a former Protestant political activist.

More troublingly, supporters of small IRA groups that still mount occasional shootings and bombings in Northern Ireland have daubed walls in McGuinness' home city with slogans denouncing Sinn Fein as "sellouts".

And overnight, the hillside overlooking Sinn Fein's other principal power base, Catholic west Belfast, was decorated with a massive Irish flag and the slogan "Erin (Ireland) is our Queen".

Protestant militants stormed the hill on Tuesday night, vandalised it and assaulted one of the Irish nationalist hard-liners guarding it. Police said the man's injuries weren't life-threatening. A police helicopter hovered overhead, using a spotlight to keep tabs on the two rival groups.

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Fears that a future IRA might rise out of alienated Catholic districts were nowhere to be heard Tuesday in Enniskillen as the queen arrived in a 10-car motorcade for an ecumenical church service in honor of her 60th anniversary on the throne. Sinn Fein members stayed away from the event.

She and her husband Prince Philip received a standing ovation as she visited the town's Catholic cathedral, her first visit to a Catholic church in her 20 visits to Northern Ireland as queen. And in the neighbouring Protestant cathedral, a veritable who's who of Northern Ireland religious life and politics gathered to pray for continued peace. Church leaders praised the contribution of Elizabeth, who last year made her first tour of the Republic of Ireland to broad public support. Sinn Fein was heavily criticised for boycotting her visit.

Archbishop Alan Harper, leader of the Anglican-affiliated Church of Ireland, said in his sermon that the queen's tour of the Irish Republic "was an occasion of profound significance and deep emotion" that signalled an era of genuine peace "perhaps for the first time ever in the recorded history of this island".

The queen greeted some of the thousands of locals who had spent hours standing on the packed, narrow sidewalks of Enniskillen's Church Street. In a private meeting at a Protestant clergyman's home, she met survivors of the Provisional IRA's bomb attack on the town 25 years ago.

The no-warning bomb exploded during an annual ceremony honouring the British dead of both world wars, and its victims were all Protestant civilians: 11 dead and 63 wounded, among them an Enniskillen school principal who never recovered from a coma. Worldwide revulsion over the callousness of the slaughter spurred IRA leaders, particularly McGuinness, to begin sounding out British government and intelligence officials for the terms of an IRA cease-fire.

"Today brings back some terrible memories, to be sure, but above all it shows us that the Enniskillen victims have not been forgotten," said Stephen Gault after meeting the queen. He was wounded in the 1987 blast while his 49-year-old father Sam was killed.

"She's a total lady. We were nervous, but she made us feel at ease," Gault said of the queen.

Despite the continuing threat from small IRA factions clinging to the aim of forcing Northern Ireland out of the UK, organisers of the queen's trip announced it weeks in advance, a radical departure from a decades-old policy requiring a media blackout until her arrival. Police in flak jackets did line Church Street but faced not a word of protest or any sign of trouble.

McGuinness, whom British and Irish officials say was a Provisional IRA commander from 1971 to 2005 when the outlawed group effectively went out of business, is dogged by questions over his insistence that he quit the Provisionals way back in 1974 after he was convicted of membership in the outlawed group.

Experts on Irish republicanism universally dismiss his claim as a lie designed to protect him from potential criminal prosecution or lawsuits by victims. The Provisional IRA's most high-profile victim was Mountbatten, Prince Philip's uncle. The 79-year-old World War II hero had defied police warnings and kept holidaying at his Irish castle each summer. The IRA blew up his yacht as it left harbour, killing him and three others, including his 14-year-old grandson and a 15-year-old schoolboy from Enniskillen.

Ed Moloney, an expert on Irish republicanism who wrote the definitive 2002 account A Secret History of the IRA, said McGuinness was the Provisional IRA's chief of staff at the time and "gave the order for him (Mountbatten) to be killed".

"The top IRA general on Aug. 27th, 1979, was Martin McGuinness. Without his say-so, Mountbatten would probably have lived for many years more," Moloney wrote on his blog Tuesday.

"While much of the media coverage has dwelt on the significance of the handshake from the point of view of Sinn Fein, the person who has actually made the greatest concession here is surely the queen," Moloney wrote.

"Ask yourself this question: If you were asked to shake the hand of the man who killed your favorite uncle, would you do it?"

- AP

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