The reason Queen Elizabeth shook hands with former IRA commander Martin McGuinness

Queen Elizabeth handshake with Martin McGuinness

A new book has revealed the reason the Queen chose to shake hands with former IRA commander Martin McGuinness when she visited Belfast in 2012.

‘Queen of the World’ was written by journalist Robert Hardman and Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Northern Ireland in 2012 is one of the key moments in the book.

Queen Elizabeth handshake with Martin McGuinness

Sinn Fein had requested that Martin McGuinness be amongst a group of individuals who would meet with the Queen at a charity event in Belfast during her Diamond Jubilee.

The approach from Sinn Fein was in complete contrast to the stance they had taken during the Queen’s visit to the Republic the year previous, when they had chosen to have nothing to do with her.

Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein at the time, suggested that Irish people were “disappointed” that the Queen had not fully apologised for Britain’s role in Irish affairs.

Mayor of Cashel, Michael Browne angered senior figures in Sinn Fein and was suspended from the party after he shook hands with the Queen as she passed through the town on her way to Cork.

Just a year later, Sinn Fein felt they had misjudged the public opinion.

Sir Julian King, then the ambassador to Dublin, said: “Sinn Fein recognised that they hadn’t caught the mood because there were some huge approval ratings for the visit — 80 or 90 per cent. Among Sinn Fein supporters there was a massive majority too. There was often cynicism about big state occasions but this definitely caught a moment.

An Irish friend said to me that it was ‘OK to feel good about the Brits’ ”.

Shortly before the Queen’s visit to Northern Ireland in 2012, Sir Julian had become director-general of the Northern Ireland Office. He was contacted by Sinn Fein with an unexpected request.

“They realised they had misread the public mood,” he said. “Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness reached out — to say would it be possible to meet the Queen at some point?”

Hardman described McGuinness as “the leader of an organisation that had once been hell-bent on exterminating her entire family”.

The meeting took place and Queen Elizabeth shook hands with Martin McGuinness.

The book describes the British Prime Minister at the time, David Cameron’s reaction to the handshake.

He considered it a great milestone of modern diplomacy, and told Hardman: “I think it was the most transformative bit of diplomacy I have seen. It was amazing.”

However, according to Cameron Queen Elizabeth was slightly embarrassed by the praise she received for the handshake, telling him: “What was I meant to do. Of course I shook his hand. It would be awkward not to.”

After the meeting Gerry Adams said: “It is a very significant step and I think it may bring us into a different phase, into a new platform which can be built upon.”

Years later McGuinness, told a BBC documentary: “I liked her courage in agreeing to meet me. I liked the engagements that I’ve had with her. There’s nothing I have seen in my engagements with her that this is someone I should dislike — I like her.”

If you would like to buy a copy of Queen of the World then visit

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Written by Andrew MooreJoin our community