Meeting comes 14 years after the Irish Republican Army ended its war against British rule in Northern Ireland.
Queen Elizabeth shakes hands with former IRA commander Martin McGuiness
BELFAST // Britain's Queen Elizabeth shook the hand of former IRA guerrilla commander Martin McGuinness yesterday for the first time, drawing a line under a conflict that cost the lives of thousands of soldiers and civilians, including that of her cousin.
The meeting with Mr McGuinness, who is now the deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, comes 14 years after the Irish Republican Army ended its war against British rule in the province, and is one of the last big milestones in a peace process whose success has been studied around the world.
The queen met Mr McGuinness, Northern Ireland's Unionist first minister Peter Robinson and Irish president Michael D Higgins for just under 10 minutes behind closed doors in a theatre in a leafy suburb of Belfast cordoned off by hundreds of police.
Mr McGuinness shook the hand of the queen a second time as she left the theatre, this time in front of television cameras, but unlike other guests chose not to bow his head.
The queen's bright green outfit appeared to have been chosen with Ireland's national colour in mind, and McGuinness wished a smiling monarch well in Irish, saying "Slan agus beannacht", which he told her means "Goodbye and god speed".
There has been scattered opposition to the gesture of reconciliation from dissident Irish militants and from some of the IRA's victims. But the vast majority of the province's politicians backed the meeting, the first between the queen and a top member of the IRA or its former political wing, Sinn Fein.
"Today is a huge event and it is, in a sense, the ultimate handshake," John Reid, British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland from 2001 to 2002, told the BBC.
"On all sorts of levels this is a hugely significant step but it is only one more step in a long process. This may take generations - to get back to absolute reconciliation in Northern Ireland and the island of Ireland."
Mr McGuinness has long been on friendly terms with the fiery anti-Catholic Unionist leader Ian Paisley, who sat with him in a power-sharing provincial government.
The queen regularly meets senior Unionist politicians, Protestants who want Northern Ireland to stay inside the United Kingdom, but not Sinn Fein - the largest party representing Catholic nationalists who want a united Ireland.
Mr McGuinness is a hero to Republican hardliners, but has long been a hate figure to Unionists, many of whom harbour deep suspicions about his past.
He admits he was on the front line in the war with British forces, including on Bloody Sunday in 1972, when troops shot dead 13 unarmed protesters, but says he never killed anyone.
A British report said that Mr McGuinness probably was armed with a submachine-gun on Bloody Sunday, but did nothing to provoke the massacre. He has said he left the IRA in 1974, but most historians believe he was active for most of its campaign.
For the queen and Prince Philip, who also shook Mr McGuinness's hand, the Northern Ireland conflict had a personal edge.
The queen's cousin Lord Louis Mountbatten, who was also Philip's uncle, was killed by the IRA in 1979 with three others, including his 14-year-old grandson, when his boat was blown up while he was on holiday in Ireland.
More than 1,000 members of the British security forces were among 3,600 people killed during the 30 years of the "Troubles".
Mr McGuinness told the queen that he agreed with comments she made last year that all victims of the conflict should be remembered, according to a source who was at the meeting.
McGuinness said yesterday that, while he represented people who had been badly hurt by British state violence, he was also big enough to understand that the queen and other families in Britain had also lost loved ones.
Asked by reporters after the meeting if his convictions had changed, he said he was "still a Republican".
Sinn Fein, which has become increasingly popular south of the Irish border as the main party opposing an EU/IMF bailout, is keen to bolster its image as a mainstream party and distance itself from a violent past that alienates many southern voters.
It still wants a referendum on whether Northern Ireland should remain part of Britain, but in the short term its aim is to be in government north and south simultaneously.