QUEEN Elizabeth II walked yesterday for the first time during her reign in areas of Northern Ireland that a few months ago would have made her a target for a sniper's bullet.
She offered herself as a royal emblem of peace for Northern Ireland, a community long divided between a pro-British Protestant majority and a Catholic minority, which generally favors unification with the Irish Republic.
Taking small steps heavy with symbolism, she opened new road and rail bridges that will help connect the citizens of the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, and she staged a stroll among nearly 1,000 people.
Perhaps most striking, the British monarch shook hands with Cardinal Cahal Daly, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland - the first such meeting since the Protestant Reformation four centuries ago.
Queen Elizabeth's visit was described by one British government official as ``confirmation that last year's cease-fire in Northern Ireland has transformed conditions in a province that has known nothing but violence and bloodshed for more than 25 years.''
Cardinal Daly said it was ``a very special occasion - a tribute to peace.'' He was standing shoulder to shoulder with Archbishop Robin Eames, head of Northern Ireland's Anglican Church, who declared: ``A year ago the queen could not have paid such a visit. This royal appearance demonstrates that today's message is peace, and hope.''
The royal visit was a substantial new link in a growing chain of events that point to lasting peace in Northern Ireland since Sept. 1, when the nationalist Irish Republican Army stopped its campaign of terror against British rule in the province.
Earlier this week Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Northern Ireland secretary, indicated that British ministers would be allowed to meet Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, without the IRA agreeing to surrender its arms.
Two days later Michael Howard, Britain's home secretary, lifted exclusion orders banning 16 citizens of Northern Ireland who support unification with the Irish Republic from visiting the British mainland.
One of Sir Patrick's officials said the momentum toward peace has built up to a point where halting it would be ``unthinkable.''
The queen's act in opening the eight-lane road bridge and neighboring rail bridge provided a potent token of that momentum.
People from the electoral districts of Peter Robinson, Democratic Unionist member of Parliament for East Belfast, and John Hendron, Social Democratic and Labour Party member of Parliament for West Belfast, met in the middle of the bridge. The two men - one a staunch Protestant, the other an equally committed Catholic -
stood chatting with the queen as she performed the opening ceremony.
Despite the IRA cease-fire, major security operations were mounted for the visit. But instead of remaining in a bullet-proof car or traveling around in a helicopter, as has happened on previous visits, Queen Elizabeth, accompanied by her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, walked about in full public view.
Among the few discordant notes struck, Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams described the royal visit as ``very much a local thing'' and referred to the queen as ``Mrs. Windsor.''
Ian Paisley, leader of the hard-line Democratic Unionist Party, accused the British government of ``using the queen in a political manner at a time of crisis in Northern Ireland.''
John Rowett, a historian at Oxford University, thinks it would have been surprising if Mr. Adams and Mr. Paisley had not made such statements, but said: ``The true significance of the queen's visit will be apparent to all who have been following developments in Northern Ireland.''
He explained that to see a British monarch ``going walkabout in what six months ago were no-go areas'' was ``an astonishing spectacle.''
It could only mean that conditions ``have moved massively in the direction of peace'' and that the queen had put ``a royal seal of approval on the peace process.''