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An overdue gesture that signals hope

Not since then US president Richard Nixon travelled to China to meet Chairman Mao in 1972 has so much effort been put into a handshake. The news that Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness will meet Queen Elizabeth II and shake her hand during the royal visit to the North next week is a welcome, even if long overdue and inadequate, gesture on Mr McGuinness's part.

It is now clear that Sinn Fein utterly misjudged the public mood during last year's royal visit to the Republic. By boycotting the visit Sinn Fein merely served to draw attention to its bloody and murky past -- a past that includes the murder of the queen's cousin Earl Mountbatten in 1979. At a time when Queen Elizabeth was winning southern hearts and minds, Sinn Fein's refusal to participate struck even those of a nationalist bent as churlish.

Quite clearly Sinn Fein is determined not to repeat its mistake this time. Instead of boycotting the queen's visit to the North, part of a tour of the UK to celebrate her 60 years on the throne, the party has agreed to an elaborately choreographed event, also to be attended by President Michael D Higgins, at which the queen and Mr McGuinness will meet and shake hands.

While the meeting does represent progress of a sort, Mr McGuinness needs to go much further if he is to convince those outside the hermetically sealed world of the Sinn Fein leadership and activists that he and the party he represents have finally put their bloody past behind them. If he is prepared to meet and shake hands with the queen then why not do so in public? Given all that has happened, the queen's willingness to meet Mr McGuinness displays a degree of magnanimity on her part that he seems entirely incapable of displaying.

And it is not just the queen who has a right to be annoyed at Mr McGuinness's refusal to fully engage with the royal visit. The one million unionist inhabitants of the North regard Queen Elizabeth II as being their queen also. As the joint leader of a power-sharing administration, Mr McGuinness surely owes it to these people to treat their queen with full respect. By refusing to do so, he is showing disrespect to the majority of the people of Northern Ireland.

This makes a nonsense of Sinn Fein's professed desire for Irish unity.

During her May 2011 visit here, Queen Elizabeth gave a masterclass in reconciling different traditions and past disagreements. It is high time that Mr McGuinness and Sinn Fein responded in kind.

Irish Independent