Northern Ireland

Royal visits: Handshakes with Sinn Féin symbolise restoration and reconciliation

Queen and Martin McGuinness
Image caption The Queen shook hands with Martin McGuinness during her visit to Northern Ireland in 2012

In 1953, British Pathé and BBC cameras captured the sumptuous spectacle of the newly crowned Queen's first visit to Northern Ireland.

The footage tells you a lot about society at the time.

Crowds, dozens deep, lined the roads and railways to catch a glimpse of the sovereign.

Over pictures of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh at Stormont, the Pathé narrator says: "Her Majesty the Queen has found overflowing expression of the undoubted loyalty and love of all her people in Northern Ireland."

1953 is the year in which the republican writer and former Sinn Féin publicity director Danny Morrison was born.

After viewing the footage, he observes that the way the royal visit was handled and reported suggested the nationalist community did not exist.


He says that the royal tour would not have meant anything to nationalists.

Image caption Danny Morrison was born in 1953, the same year as the Queen's first visit to Northern Ireland

"They would not necessarily have resented it," he said, "but back then before the civil rights campaign, they would have accepted that was their lot."

By 1966, there had been the first rumblings of conflict - and in that year, the Queen visited Northern Ireland for the last time before the Troubles broke out.

She opened the bridge in Belfast which bears her name.

But in a sign of the coming hostilities, a young nationalist dropped a brick from a high building onto the bonnet of the royal car.

The monarch did not return to Northern Ireland until 1977 - her Silver Jubilee year.

Security was so tight that the Queen had to stay overnight at sea and take her first ever helicopter flight to get to Belfast.

Republicans staged a demonstration which they called the "Queen of Death March".

It ended in a clash with the security forces.

Two years later, the royal family lost one of their own.

Lord Mountbatten was one of four people killed by an IRA bomb on their fishing boat off the western Irish coast.

An end to the violence felt a long way off.

But in the early 1990s, amidst whispers of the moves towards the peace process, the Queen began to undertake visits to Northern Ireland again.

In 1998, there was a moment which showed the potential power in sovereign symbolism.

The Queen took part in a public event with the Irish President Mary McAleese for the first time - on a World War One battlefield in Belgium.

Image caption Glenn Barr says people have to learn to solve their differences through dialogue

They opened the Island of Ireland Peace Park at Messines.


Londonderry community worker and former loyalist leader Glenn Barr was one of the people who led the project.

He says the lesson of history was very relevant.

"This is the choice," he reflects. "You can learn to solve your differences through dialogue, or you fight a civil war and fill the graveyards of Ireland north and south, and you'll have to sit down and talk at the end of it."

He remembers that the potent image which was broadcast globally helped to open the way for more of the same.

"We knew there were talks then about the possibility of Messines setting the scene for Her Majesty to visit the Republic at some point," he says.

"We were very aware that a magnetic friendship had appeared between Her Majesty and President McAleese."

That friendship continued to grow.

It culminated in 2011, when the Queen came to the Republic of Ireland for a state visit.

She stood beside the Irish President at Dublin's Garden of Remembrance - and laid a wreath in memory of the rebels who fought British rule.

Sinn Féin did not meet the monarch on that visit.

But the gestures - which also included the Queen addressing dignitaries in Irish during a banquet - helped to change republican thinking.

The following year, Martin McGuinness became the first republican leader to shake her hand, during a visit to Belfast.

The meetings which were once unthinkable became more regular.

But this week has seen more history made and healing found.

The future King made a poignant pilgrimage to the place his mentor was murdered.

And the heir to the throne met the Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams, in public and private.

Danny Morrison says that for republicans, meeting the royals who are technically at the head of the Crown Forces was a difficult step.

Image caption Prince Charles shook hands with Martin McGuinness on his visit to Belfast on Thursday

But he thinks that the changed royal-republican relationship is "extraordinary".

"I am an Irish republican, but I have to recognise that the British people revere their head of state. I think it represents that we're moving away from conflict, away from disagreement and difference and towards accommodation, peace and respect," he said.

Glenn Barr says "you couldn't have a more meaningful gesture than Gerry Adams meeting Prince Charles, and Martin McGuinness shaking hands with Her Majesty the Queen".

"If that's the leadership she has given to us as her people, then we should take it," he added.

The relationship between royalty and republicanism used to mirror the faultlines during the Troubles.

But now historic handshakes have come to symbolise restoration and reconciliation.

The View is on BBC One Northern Ireland on Thursday at 22:45 BST.

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