huge crowds greeted the Queen yesterday as she concluded her Diamond Jubilee tour of Northern Ireland with a visit to the Titanic Belfast attraction and a special party at Stormont.
But the real significance of the visit could be felt for years to come after the monarch’s historic handshake with former IRA commander Martin McGuinness in an event at Belfast’s Lyric theatre.
Peter Sheridan, of the Cooperation Ireland charity that organised the event, said it was an example of peace-building.
He said of the mood: “It was a very relaxed atmosphere, the very ordinariness of it, even if it was not ordinary people.”
He added: “It is certainly a seminal event between people on this island and between these islands.”
Renowned poet Michael Longley, who was also at the event, said of the handshake: “I think it’s very significant. To dismiss this as theatrical is nonsense – a handshake is a handshake, no matter who you are.
“I think it carries on from her visit to the Republic and the fact that she met Mr McGuinness, who has made a huge contribution to the peace process, is very important.”
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who oversaw the Good Friday Agreement, welcomed the handshake but noted how the encounter was difficult for the Royal Family, given the IRA murder in 1979 of Lord Mountbatten.
“I think it is fantastic that we have come so far,” Mr Blair said. “The Queen’s is a magnificent gesture and thoroughly typical because it must be very difficult for her – it is a sign of how much has changed.”
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said: “I think the significance will be seen in how much we can build upon it.
“I think the vast majority of unionists will be pleased that this happened because they know it’s essentially a real gesture, beyond the rhetoric, towards their sense of identity and their sense of allegiance.”
Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson said it had been an “outstandingly successful” visit.
“This is a moment in Northern Ireland’s history that will shine in our collective memory,” he said.
“Over 25,000 people were at Stormont expressing their gratitude for Her Majesty’s 60 years of dedication and service to the whole of the United Kingdom.
“The warmth and respect for the Queen demonstrated by the people of Northern Ireland has been overwhelming.”