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Queen's Northern Ireland visit marks symbolic end to conflict

By Max Foster, CNN
June 27, 2012 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
  • Britain's Queen Elizabeth visiting Northern Ireland on jubilee tour
  • During the trip she will meet -- and shake hands with -- former IRA figure Martin McGuinness
  • Meeting a symbolic moment of peace between two sides of sectarian divide
  • Queen's cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten, was assassinated by the IRA in 1979

London (CNN) -- Queen Elizabeth's jubilee tour strikes an historic note today, when the British monarch visits Northern Ireland on a trip it is hoped will mark a symbolic end to the decades-long conflict there.

She's been to the province almost every year over the last decade. But this visit is especially significant as it follows her tour of the Republic of Ireland last year.

It was the first visit by a British head of state since Ireland's independence, and at the time, British Prime Minister David Cameron described it as a game-changer.

As head of state of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the queen has a purely symbolic role. But her influence - after six decades on the throne - is palpable. And her ability to mark an historic turning point unquestioned.

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Despite the passing of 15 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, resentment among Ireland's Catholics - both North and South - has lingered over the wrongs committed during British rule.

Queen arrives in Northern Ireland

But the queen's visit last year helped to heal some of those wounds.

In Dublin she visited Croke Park, where British forces killed Irish civilians at a Gaelic football match in 1920, on what became known as Bloody Sunday.

At a state dinner the same day, there were gasps as she spoke in Gaelic. The Irish president was seen mouthing the word 'wow' and commentators declared the speech historic.

The queen managed subtly to set the tone of a visiting head of state as opposed to a ruling one. The image was powerful and cathartic for those still bitter towards Britain.

"It is a sad and regrettable reality that through history our islands have experienced more than their fair share of heartache, turbulence and loss," she said.

In Northern Ireland, the queen has the chance to make history again -- but this time it is personal.

The queen's cousin, Louis Mountbatten, was assassinated by the Provisional IRA (Irish Republican Army) in 1979, using a bomb planted in his fishing boat. Three others died in the same explosion.

The queen was devastated: Mountbatten had introduced her to his nephew, Prince Philip, during her teens; the pair went on to marry and have four children.

After decades of struggle, key Republicans in Northern Ireland are ready to have their symbolic moment of peace with the "Queen of England," as they call her.

Sinn Fein has decided that Republican icon and Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, should shake hands with the queen in front of the cameras. McGuinness is a former IRA commander.

What makes this simple handshake even more poignant is that the queen is not just representing the UK, she's also representing the victims of the sectarian conflict. As someone who lost a loved one in an IRA attack, she is one herself.

With a simple gesture, a victim and a former man of violence will put their personal feelings aside in the name of duty, and in the name of peace.

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