Relief and outrage at Queen’s handshake with rebel

Queen Elizabeth II and her once militant enemy, Martin McGuinness © Getty Images

Martin McGuinness was once a commander in the militant organisation that killed thousand of British citizens. Today, in a historic gesture, Queen Elizabeth II will publicly shake his hand.

Yesterday, Queen Elizabeth II arrived in Northern Ireland. The flight took just an hour – the territory is part of the UK, and lies just across the sea from Great Britain. Yet this short journey was one of the most significant that the Queen will ever make.

The reason: a simple handshake. In her long reign, Elizabeth has shaken the hand of countless world leaders – from the great and the wise to vicious tyrants like Nicolae Ceausescu. But none of these greetings have been more fraught with meaning than today’s.

Why? Because the Queen and McGuinness represent two sides of a divide that tore Northern Ireland apart for decades. She is the ultimate symbol of the United Kingdom; he is a staunch republican, who believes that Northern Ireland should break from British rule.

And it is not simply a matter of ideology. Before becoming a respectable politician, McGuinness was a commander in the IRA. This highly controversial militant group conducted a ‘long war’ against British officials, sparking a dark period in the Northern Irish history known as ‘the Troubles.’ The IRA killed 1,800 people in bombings and shootings; over 600 were civilians.

Many of the families of IRA victims are deeply uncomfortable with today’s reconciliation. But the Troubles affected the Queen more personally than most: her own cousin was among the casualties.

The meeting is not easy for McGuinness, either. Britain ruled over Ireland for many centuries, during which the Irish often lived in poverty and degradation. With his native North still a part of the UK, McGuinness sees the Queen as the head of a repressive occupying power.

Twenty years ago, this meeting would have been utterly unthinkable. But since 1998, a difficult peace process has hauled Northern Ireland out of conflict. Today, old enemies live together in relative harmony. McGuinness himself is a symbol of this change: he has become a successful politician, respected by Unionists and Nationalists alike.

Now, for the sake of ‘peace and reconciliation,’ the two have agreed to put history aside. The handshake will be heavy with emotion and significance.

Not stirred?

Not everybody, though, can so easily forget the past. The IRA is a terrorist organisation, they say, responsible for mass murder. This shake of the hand is a slap in the face for each of its many victims; there are some crimes we should never ‘forgive and forget.’

But after decades of violence, many in Northern Ireland simply want peace. The crimes of the past might still hurt, they say; but they cannot be allowed to destroy this opportunity for a better future. However well-founded they may be, desires for justice and revenge must be sacrificed for the good of the nation.

You Decide

  1. Would you have tea with a murderer if you knew it would save lives?
  2. Should thirty-year-old crimes still be held against the people who committed them?


  1. Draw a map of the British Isles and label England, Scotland, Wales, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Include a key indicating whether each nation is a part of the UK or Eire.
  2. Imagine the Queen decided at the last moment that she could not shake McGuinness’ hand. Write a news report describing the drama of the occasion.

Some People Say...

“Once a villain, always a villain.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m confused – are we talking about Britain, or Ireland?
Both. The British Isles are made up mostly of two large islands called Great Britain and Ireland. The first includes England, Scotland and Wales; the second is mostly a separate country, called the Republic of Ireland, or Eire. But at Ireland’s northern tip there is a small territory that is, along with Great Britain, a part of the United Kingdom. Not everybody is happy with this situation.
How come?
Some Northern Irish, mostly Catholics, feel that Northern Ireland belongs in the Republic. The other half, mostly the Protestant descendants of English settlers, are fiercely loyal to the UK. Divided by religion, class and national loyalty, these two groups have fought over the future of Northern Ireland for decades – if not centuries.

Word Watch

Nicolae Ceausescu
Ceausescu (roughly pronounced chow-shess-ku) was a dictator of Romania who ruled for over twenty years, until the fall of communism in 1989. Despite being remembered as one of the cruellest Soviet-backed leaders in Eastern Europe, he remained surprisingly friendly with Western powers. He was granted the Legion of Honour by France, and Elizabeth II made him an honorary knight.
Commander in the IRA
McGuinness was an influential figure in the IRA by the age of 21 – that much is known. What is less clear is how long he remained involved. McGuinness claims he left in 1974, but some IRA defectors have claimed he remained active even in the 1990s. Whether he was personally responsible for any killings is also a matter of great controversy.
Her own cousin
Lord Mountbatten of Burma was the last Governor General of India before Britain ended its colonial rule. In 1979, while fishing in Ireland, his boat was exploded by an IRA bomb. Prince Charles, who described him as a ‘mentor,’ was particularly devastated.
Peace process
In the 1990s, serious efforts began to put an end to fighting in Northern Ireland. In 1998, after several failures, Prime Minister Tony Blair oversaw a deal that was signed by former IRA leaders and top Unionists. This was the famous Good Friday Agreement. Several bombings have occurred since then, and tensions remain; but the peace process is nevertheless considered an enormous success.


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