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A moment of deep symbolism

Yesterday's handshake between Queen Elizabeth and the North's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness was an occasion loaded with symbolism. Having completely misjudged popular opinion in the Republic at the time of the queen's visit to this part of the island in May 2011, Sinn Fein was determined not to make the same mistake twice.

Even a decade ago the notion that Mr McGuinness, a former chief of staff of the Provisional IRA, would shake hands publicly with Queen Elizabeth and her husband the Duke of Edinburgh would have been considered utterly absurd. Yesterday's carefully choreographed encounter between the queen and Mr McGuinness at Belfast's Lyric Theatre showed just how far we have come.

Of course Sinn Fein, as is its wont, milked the occasion for all it was worth in propaganda terms. The protracted 'will he, won't he' routine ensured that it was Mr McGuinness and Sinn Fein who dominated the headlines in the days leading up to the queen's visit to the North.

Then, when it was finally confirmed that Mr McGuinness would deign to meet the queen, the drama was further extended as we waited to learn whether or not a picture of the handshake would be made public.

However, despite all of Sinn Fein's machinations, this was still an historic occasion. Sinn Fein has finally made its peace with the British monarchy. Thirty-three years after the Provisional IRA murdered the Duke of Edinburgh's cousin Earl Mountbatten, Sinn Fein has now -- to use Sean Lemass's famous phrase -- made the transition to being a "slightly constitutional" party on both sides of the Border.

A return to violence by the mainstream republican movement is now utterly unthinkable and the dissident republicans who remain wedded to physical force look even more irrelevant.

Having finally dispensed with its royalty phobia, what next for Sinn Fein?

If a formula can be found to accommodate a handshake between Mr McGuinness and the queen, can it be long before the party's last sacred cow, its refusal to take its seats at Westminster, is slaughtered too? With five MPs, Sinn Fein could have played a pivotal role after the May 2010 UK election produced a hung parliament. David Cameron might still be the leader of the opposition if Sinn Fein had abandoned its abstentionist policy.

What we can be certain of is that when this does eventually happen, Sinn Fein will exploit it for all it is worth.

Irish Independent