Britain's queen and a former IRA commander have met behind closed doors to reaffirm North Ireland's peace process. Their handshake was meant to symbolize the end to a conflict that cost thousands of lives.
Northern Ireland Office officials say the monarch and Martin McGuinness, a former commander of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), met privately Wednesday inside a Belfast theater during a cross-community arts event. Media were barred from the event.
A second handshake, performed for selected photographers, followed a short time later. It was billed as an important gesture in the Northern Ireland's peace process that began with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
McGuiness, a member of Sinn Fein, formerly the IRA's political wing, is now deputy first minister of British-controlled Northern Ireland.
"It is important that we all recognize that we are in a different place," said McGuinness, adding that there had been suffering on "all sides" in the conflict.
During the four-decade conflict, in which Republicans fought for a united Ireland ruled from Dublin, some 3,600 people on both sides of the religious and political divide were killed.
The Provisional IRA's campaign of violence alone claimed some 1,755 lives during the period commonly referred to as "the Troubles." In 1979, the IRA blew up a yacht carrying Lord Louis Mountbatten, the queen's cousin.
Only last year, McGuinness' party, the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein, had turned down an invitation to be present during the queen's first-ever visit to the Irish Republic.
The queen is in Northern Ireland as part of United Kingdom-wide celebrations of her 60th year on the throne.
ncy, rc/ipj (AP, Reuters, AFP)