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Queen meets families of IRA bombing victims

Northern Ireland visit begins in town where bomb killed 11 in 1987.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II meets the public after a service in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, in memory of 11 people who died in an 1987 IRA bombing.
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II meets the public after a service in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, in memory of 11 people who died in an 1987 IRA bombing.

ENNISKILLEN, Northern Ireland // Britain's Queen Elizabeth II met relatives of people killed in one of the Irish Republican Army's most notorious bombings yesterday, ahead of her historic meeting with the paramilitary group's former commander, Martin McGuinness.

The meeting with him today, the first between the queen and a senior member of the IRA or its political wing Sinn Fein, is a landmark in the peace process, 14 years after the IRA ended its 30-year campaign of violence against British rule.

At the start of a two-day visit, the queen, whose cousin Lord Mountbatten was killed by an IRA attack in 1979, held a private meeting with relatives of the 11 people who died in the 1987 bombing of a war memorial service in Enniskillen.

That attack sparked a wave of revulsion against the IRA that helped convince its leadership to engage in the peace process.

Relatives of the victims said the Queen's meeting with Mr McGuinness was premature.

"I don't think she should shake hands with Martin McGuinness. I certainly wouldn't shake his hand," said Noel McIlfatrick, whose wife and children were injured and whose brother-in-law Edward Armstrong was killed in the attack. "It will be difficult for the queen," he said.

The IRA ended its campaign in 1998 but small splinter groups have continued to launch attacks against British targets, prompting security concerns that have prevented the queen from publicly announcing trips to the province ahead of her arrival.

The current visit, part of her Diamond Jubilee tour, was the first to be announced in advance since violence broke out in the 1960s. Security was tight, with much of the town closed to traffic and onlookers searched by security officials.

Mr McGuinness, who is the deputy first minister of Northern Ireland's power-sharing government, is due to meet the Queen at an arts event. Officials have refused to say whether the meeting will be open to the press, or even if a planned handshake will be photographed.

The queen has often met senior Unionist politicians, who want Northern Ireland to remain in the UK, but not Sinn Fein, the largest party representing nationalists who want a united Ireland.

Sinn Fein, which has become increasingly popular south of the Irish border as the main party opposing an EU/IMF bailout, wants a referendum on whether Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK, where its elected ministers still refuse to take their parliamentary seats.

The party rejected invitations to attend events during the queen's symbolic visit to the Republic of Ireland last year, the first by a British monarch since Dublin won independence from London in 1921.

There has been relatively little opposition in Northern Ireland to the planned meeting, other than a protest by Irish nationalists in Belfast at the weekend which attracted about 300 people.

Hundreds of people cheered as the queen walked through the streets of the Enniskillen, many waving British flags. After meeting the bombing victims, the queen visited a Catholic church, the first time she has done so in Ireland.

"When I arrived in Enniskillen today, I found it difficult to forget what happened," said Robin Eames, the former Anglican Primate of All Ireland, who was in town on the day of the attack.

"But I believe the handshake is another milestone in the peace process," he said. "It is a genuine step forward."