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Lise Hand: Martin's 'hello, goodbye and God bless’ to queen

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Queen Elizabeth waves to members of the public as she and her husband Prince Philip drive through the Stormont estate during a Diamond Jubilee event in Belfast. Photo: Reuters

Queen Elizabeth waves to members of the public as she and her husband Prince Philip drive through the Stormont estate during a Diamond Jubilee event in Belfast. Photo: Reuters

Queen Elizabeth waves to members of the public as she and her husband Prince Philip drive through the Stormont estate during a Diamond Jubilee event in Belfast. Photo: Reuters

The principal dancer in this meticulously choreographed ballet made her entrance as the lone TV camera rolled.

She glided towards the short chorus line awaiting her arrival, shook one hand, moved on and then paused before the second member in the line. Smiling, she extended a white-gloved hand and gently clasped the outstretched hand of Martin McGuinness, who spoke briefly as their handshake lingered -- but nobody could hear his words, for this was a silent production.

Queen Elizabeth smiled, inclined her head, made no reply and moved on. (In any case, she wouldn't have understood the dialogue, as he had said, "Slan agus beannacht", or "goodbye and God bless".)

Given Sinn Fein's fondness for the spotlight, it seems fitting that Belfast's Lyric Theatre was the stage for what may well be the final scene of the long-running political drama, The Peace Process, which for years starred a large cast of heroes and villains as the plot unfolded with all sorts of setbacks and unexpected twists.

But, in fact, this scene was merely the encore for the benefit of the audience -- the main action had unfolded behind closed doors a little earlier when the former IRA commander had first shaken the royal hand and then had a five-minute conversation and tea with Britain's Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. (According to one report, there was a smorgasbord of cucumber and marmite sandwiches on standby, but neither partook).

Afterwards, it emerged that Martin had touched on several subjects, including complimenting her on her visit to the Republic last year and her acknowledgment of the victims of the Troubles. He spoke of the need for strong leadership in the evolving peace process.

If the queen said anything in reply, it remains unknown.

But chances are that this unwitnessed pow-wow between the pair was cordial rather than convivial. Sinn Fein's ambiguity toward this encounter was made clear when the North's First Minister Peter Robinson presented the queen with a piece of Belleek porcelain china at the end of the event and Martin McGuinness stepped back, as Sinn Fein did not want him to be shown giving a gift to the British monarch.

And the media had been kept at a distant arm's length, too. But the monarch understands visual symbolism; she arrived at the Lyric clad in an apple-green outfit and sporting a 38-stone diamond-frosted sunflower brooch, a flower which symbolises peace.

Nor was the usually chatty Martin in a confiding mood as he left the event, merely commenting that it had gone "very well" and that the meeting had been "very nice".

Of course, this was just the first engagement of the day for the queen.

After the Co-operation Ireland event at the Lyric, she travelled to the new Titanic centre on the city's docks, where she and Prince Philip were greeted by the centre's chief executive, Tim Husbands, before she was given a tour of some of the exhibits, followed by a slap-up formal lunch hosted by Peter Robinson. (The menu included Guinness and treacle bread, locally caught seafood and intriguing-sounding Titanic cabin biscuits).

One of the guides who escorted the royal couple through some of the tour was 62-year-old local man Brian Higginson, a self-confessed "Titanorak".

His own father Isaac had served on board the HMS Valiant with Prince Philip. He had even been able to tell the queen something new about launching ships (she's launched 21 during her reign).

"I pointed out the fact that at the launch of all White Star Line ships, there was never the breaking of a champagne bottle on the bow of the ship, to which the queen sort of looked and went, 'Oh?'" he explained.

The North's Secretary of State Owen Paterson was with the royal party, and said that the meeting in the Lyric "had obviously gone very well", insisting that it was "absolutely appropriate that when the queen visits parts of the UK, she meets local politicians, democratically elected, pursuing their democratic political goals by peaceful means".

Suitably fed, the royal visitor then headed for the final part of her two-day Jubilee tour, which was a drive around a huge garden party at Stormont Castle, which was attended by over 20,000 people.

Miraculously, the weather stayed dry as the crowds lined the long avenues in the grounds, many sporting Union Jack hats and T-shirts.

Finally, the couple arrived, standing at the back of an open-top Range Rover, waving as they slowly passed.

But when they alighted to shake a few hands -- including that of Iris Robinson -- they climbed back into a covered Range Rover for the long trip down the main avenue, which left many who had waited for hours to catch a glimpse a bit disappointed.

But this party -- large as it was -- in any event had been overshadowed by the handshake.

Appropriately, the current play at the Lyric Theatre is 'The Importance of Being Earnest', described in the posters as "a well observed satire about our sense of duty, keeping up appearances and our obsession with social status".

Yet somehow the two-hander in the theatre yesterday lacked a real sense of drama.

It was more muted and devoid of the jaw-dropping sense of genuine history unfolding.

Perhaps this was because it took place off-stage and out of public view.

Or maybe it was simply that the spine-tingling denouement of the Peace Process had happened over a year ago when that consummate actor Queen Elizabeth made her historic bow in Dublin, when she walked on the sacred turf of the Theatre of Dreams in Croke Park, and when her exquisitely sensitive soliloquy in which she spoke of "being able to bow to the past but not be bound by it" brought the house down.

Yesterday was an encore of sorts, a final scene to be played out as the curtain falls on the hugely symbolic ceremonial purging of a painful past.

It was important and historic to be sure, but maybe when the hand of history touched Sinn Fein on the shoulder last year, they were unwise to miss their cue.

Irish Independent