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Martin McGuinness could be set for historic face-to-face meeting with the Queen

NORTHERN Ireland Deputy First Minister and former IRA commander Martin McGuinness could be set for a historic first meeting with the Queen.

The Government and Buckingham Palace have yet to comment but it now appears a face-to-face meeting is increasingly likely.

This would represent a historic break with the past by republicans and mark an important milestone for community relations in Northern Ireland.

Mr McGuinness said the issue could be considered in the future as a gesture to unionists but his party has insisted it has not held any official discussions.

This follows the Queen's hugely significant state visit to the Irish Republic last year, where she was praised for a series of gestures aimed at healing the divisions of the past.

Rev Harold Good, a Methodist minister who played a prominent role in the peace process, said a meeting between the Queen and Mr McGuinness would help the process of building bridges between Protestants and Catholics.

"I think this would be hugely encouraging," he said.

"I think it would be appreciated by people from the unionist community. They would see this as a very important sign from a very senior figure in the republican/nationalist community. I think it would also help heal some of the historic stand-offs that we have had."

Rev Good said any meeting would form part of a series of reciprocal gestures between unionists and republicans, which he said had taken place without either political leadership shedding their beliefs.

The Queen is making a series of high-profile visits for the diamond jubilee of her coronation in June and there are predictions her next visit to Northern Ireland could come in the early summer.

However, there has also been speculation that the monarch could officially open Belfast's new £90 million Titanic-themed tourist attraction at the end of this month, or the major visitors' centre being opened at the Giant's Causeway in Co Antrim in June.

When the Queen paid her first state visit to the Republic of Ireland last year, she was joined by the Irish president in honouring those who died in the world wars. But the Queen also laid a wreath to republicans killed fighting British rule in Ireland and used a keynote address at a state banquet to speak in Irish.

The moves were among a string of major gestures acknowledged as being highly significant by prominent Irish figures, including Mr McGuinness.

Sinn Fein leaders have always refused to meet members of the royal family, citing opposition to Britain's continued role in Ireland and the part that royals play as figureheads of the armed forces.

Troubled history has also centred on the IRA murder of the Queen's cousin Lord Mountbatten in a bomb attack on his boat in Co Sligo, near the Irish border. The 1979 attack also claimed the lives of three other people including two teenage boys.

Last May Sinn Fein declined an invitation for Mr McGuinness to meet the Queen as part of her state visit to the Irish Republic.

But when he contested the Irish presidential election last October, Mr McGuinness said he would be prepared to meet members of the royal family if he became Ireland's head of state. This prompted questions from unionists in Northern Ireland who noted his refusal to meet the monarch as part of his role as the effective joint-leader of the Stormont power-sharing government.

Since then however, Mr McGuinness has made increasingly positive comments about the possibility of meeting the Queen. He said he was struck by the gestures made by the Queen during her state visit.

He went on: "But what was I most impressed with? I was most impressed with her speech in Dublin Castle when she talked about how we could all have wished that things could have been done differently or not at all."

He told Irish broadcaster RTE that her state visit would inform any discussions on a future meeting.

Democratic Unionist MP Nigel Dodds has also pointed to a change in the public mood around royal visits to Northern Ireland. The Westminster representative asked if visits by the Queen to Northern Ireland could be publicised in advance, as they are in Britain.

"Those visits are generally known about. They have been publicised and preparations have been made," he said.

"However, although we must be conscious of the security issues (in Northern Ireland) as much notice as possible of Her Majesty's visits should be given, so that everyone knows about her itinerary and can celebrate."

The Queen's press secretary, Ailsa Anderson, said: "Planning is in an embryonic stage so there have been no decisions made about where the Queen will go or who she will meet."