Northern Ireland

Martin McGuinness praises Queen's peace process 'leadership'

Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness shook hands with the Queen for the first time in June 2012 Image copyright PA
Image caption Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness shook hands with the Queen for the first time when she visited Belfast's Lyric Theatre in June 2012

Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness has praised the Queen for her "leadership role" in the Irish peace process.

He made the remarks days ahead of an unprecedented state visit to Britain by Irish President Michael D Higgins.

Mr McGuinness said he had been impressed by the British monarch during her highly symbolic state visit to the Republic of Ireland in May 2011.

The Sinn Féin MLA, who is a former IRA man, is due to attend a banquet hosted by the Queen in honour of Mr Higgins.

The president's four-day UK state visit, the first undertaken by an Irish head of state, begins on 8 April.

Oath of allegiance

Since May 2007, Mr McGuinness has held the role of deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, in a power-sharing coalition of unionists and Irish nationalists at Stormont.

He is also a former MP for Mid Ulster, who refused to take his seat in the House of Commons because he would have had to swear an oath of allegiance to the monarch.

However, speaking to the Irish state broadcaster RTÉ on Sunday, Mr McGuinness said the Queen was a "staunch supporter" of the Irish peace process.

"I think she played a leadership role and is playing a leadership role in the whole context of the need for reconciliation," he said.

Sinn Féin refused to meet the Queen during her groundbreaking state visit in 2011, but their stance was widely viewed as out of step with the overwhelming mood of the Irish people.

In a visit rich in symbolism, the monarch laid a wreath in Dublin's Garden of Remembrance, in tribute to Irish rebels who died fighting for independence from Britain.

Image caption The Queen and former Irish President Mary McAleese paid tribute to Irishmen who died fighting for independence from British rule during the monarch's first state visit to the Republic of Ireland in 2011

She also visited the headquarters of the Gaelic Games Association (GAA) and spoke a few words in the Irish language as she addressed a state dinner in Dublin Castle.

The castle had once been the seat of British rule in Ireland.

'Tremendously impressed'

Mr McGuinness told RTÉ that he had been moved by words and deeds during her visit to the Republic of Ireland, the first by a British monarch in the history of the state.

"I was tremendously impressed by the very solemn way that she commemorated those Irish republicans who lost their lives in the struggle for independence, how she acknowledged the importance of the Irish language and, probably most important of all, when she acknowledged that she had wished that things had been done differently or not at all," he said.

"That was very, very impressive and I think that it is quite clear that this is a woman that is playing a leadership role."

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Media captionIrish Prime Minister Enda Kenny said the Queen's invitation to Mr McGuinness was part of "building relationships" across a divide

On Saturday, Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams confirmed Mr McGuinness would attend the state banquet at Windsor Castle, hosted by the Queen in honour of President Higgins.

Mr Adams said the decision had to be viewed against the backdrop of huge political change in recent years.

'Historic event'

In a party statement, Mr McGuinness said he had accepted the invitation "in the context of conflict resolution and of building reconciliation among the people of Ireland, and between the people of Ireland and the people of Britain".

"I am conscious that this decision is significant and involves political and symbolic challenges for Irish republicans.

"However, my presence alongside Peter Robinson brings an all-island dimension to this historic event which, it is worth noting, has taken all of 93 years to happen," he added.

President Higgins will be joined by his wife, Sabina, and the Irish Prime Minister, Enda Kenny, for the UK visit.

In another first for an Irish head of state, the president will address both Houses of Parliament in London.

The Windsor Castle banquet will not be the first time Mr McGuinness has met the Queen.

Symbolic moment

The pair shook hands, both in private and in public, during her visit to Northern Ireland in 2012.

The handshake was regarded as a very symbolic moment for the Northern Ireland peace process.

It was seen by many as one of the most significant of the Queen's reign as the IRA paramilitary group murdered her cousin, Lord Mountbatten, while he was on holiday in the Republic of Ireland in 1979.

Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny said he could see no reason why the Sinn Féin MLA should not attend next week's state banquet at Windsor Castle.

"Martin McGuinness, as deputy first minister in the assembly in Northern Ireland has been very forthright and very pragmatic in what he has been doing here," Mr Kenny told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show.

"This is all part of the building of relationships between the two countries and peoples on both sides of the divide.

"We've got to move on and not be blocked by the past," he added.

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