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Historic handshake between British queen and Irish republican (+video)

The meeting between Queen Elizabeth and longtime republican and Northern Irish Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness is a 'hugely significant step,' say commentators.

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In another twist, McGuinness is alleged to have been IRA leader when it killed Lord Louis Mountbatten, the uncle of her husband.

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"Today is a huge event and it is, in a sense, the ultimate handshake," said former British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland John Reid, speaking to the BBC.

Mr. Reid went on to say the "hugely significant step" was only one more in a process of reconciliation that "may take generations" to complete.

Setting precedent

It's not the first time a Sinn Féin politician has met Britain's queen. In 2011, Michael Browne, the mayor of the Irish town of Cashel, challenged party policy by meeting the queen during her first ever visit to the Republic of Ireland.  (Sinn Féin is active in both Ireland and Northern Ireland.) Party members at the time complained the move was premature. Mr. Browne, who had been diagnosed with cancer, died in December 2011.

What makes today's meeting different is McGuinness's stature, both within Irish republicanism, where he is viewed as a hero, and as a senior elected figure.

Mick Fealty, who runs the Northern Irish political website Slugger O'Toole, says Sinn Féin is now playing catch-up to public opinion.

"Last year they misjudged the effect of the queen's visit to Ireland and were very much seen as being out of step with the [public] mood," he says.

Mr. Fealty also says meeting the monarch is simply something the deputy first minister, the second most powerful figure in Northern Ireland's power-sharing assembly, must do.

"It's also about Martin [McGuinness] stepping-up to the reality of his own office."

Others think the symbolism is not so much a celebration of normalcy but a recognition of changed times and the emptying of meaning from political claims.

British political commentator Mick Hume says the meeting represents a final admission of the exhaustion not only of radical Irish republicanism, but also Britain's "right to rule."

"Britain's claim on Northern Ireland is a much more neutral claim now. It's almost there as a leftover from the past rather than something they'd put their lives on the line to defend," he says.

"You can see this in the British political class' shrug of indifference about Northern Ireland. You couldn't imagine a figure like [the late outspoken British unionist politician] Enoch Powell now. For him, Ireland was at the center of the British Empire."

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