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Ed West: North is a better place than it was, but the two communities are still divided by so much.

ANOTHER milestone is reached in Northern Ireland’s history as Queen Elizabeth II shakes hands with former IRA commander turned Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, an idea that would have once been as unthinkable as "seeing Hitler in a synagogue", as a Unionist politician once described the prospect of power-sharing. Every new milestone is so once-unthinkable that I half expect to see the leaders of Sinn Fein and the DUP going for a full on snog, Adams in an Orange Order outfit and Robinson wearing a Celtic top.

Mr McGuiness said that by shaking the monarch’s hand he was symbolically shaking the hands of hundreds of thousands of Unionists, although he was literally shaking the hand of one Unionist whose cousin his friends had murdered off the coast of Sligo.

Who knows how the Queen feels – but hers is just one of thousands of families that suffered through Anglo-Irish conflict. As she said during her royal tour of the Irish Republic last year: “So much of this visit reminds us of the complexity of our history, its many layers and traditions, but also the importance of forbearance and conciliation, of being able to bow to the past but not be bound by it.”

And yesterday, for the first time, the Queen visited a Catholic church in Ireland.

Reconciliation is a beautiful thing, but we should not kid ourselves about the future of the six counties. McGuinness and Adams have made tremendous efforts, at great personal risk, to end a terrorist war their organisation kept going, against all military or moral sense. But in doing so, as Kevin Myers writes, they’ve won the PR war, the republican narrative enjoying a spectacular popularity among young people in the South.

And Northern Ireland is a hell of a lot better than it was. Yet geographically the two communities are more physically divided than ever, the province littered with peace walls; the paramilitaries have evolved into mafias; and the province is only kept peaceful through enormous subsidies. In the medium term the hope was always that old age and war-weariness would temper the fire of the paramilitaries, and that peace had its own momentum, and that has worked. The long term? That's another question entirely.