Peter Morrison, Associated Press
ENNISKILLEN, Northern Ireland — Queen Elizabeth II prayed together Tuesday with Catholic and Protestant leaders from across Northern Ireland as this long-divided land demonstrated its rising faith in a shared future — and braced for a peacemaking milestone that has been a quarter-century in the making.
The British monarch visited the lakeside town of Enniskillen, scene of one of the Irish Republican Army's most shocking atrocities, for events symbolizing how far Northern Ireland has come from its darkest days of bloodshed. On Wednesday she's expected to meet and shake hands with Martin McGuinness, former commander of the dominant Provisional IRA faction, in what many see as the symbolic conclusion to a four-decade conflict.
Their first-ever contact, long avoided by McGuinness' Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein, follows the Provisional IRA's killing of some 1,775 people since 1970, including the queen's own cousin Lord Louis Mountbatten — a 1979 assassination that IRA experts say McGuinness himself sanctioned. McGuinness today is the senior Catholic in Northern Ireland's unity government, an institution forged following the Provisionals' 2005 decision to renounce violence and disarm.
Yet the political difficulties that McGuinness faces are writ large on the Northern Ireland landscape. Catholics and Protestants alike are suddenly ribbing him, if not to his face, as "Sir Martin of Londonderry" — a tongue-in-cheek reference to his home city, because virtually all Irish nationalists reject that British name and use its native Irish name of Derry. Many Protestant leaders and analysts likewise have asserted, triumphantly, that the peace process has left McGuinness with no choice but to bend the knee to the British monarch.
"If Martin McGuinness is to be the deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, he needs to recognize that her majesty is head of state of the United Kingdom," said Jeffrey Donaldson, a lawmaker from the main Protestant party, the Democratic Unionists, which today runs Northern Ireland in an odd but surprisingly stable coalition with Sinn Fein.
"Other than moving into Buckingham Palace and curling up like an old green corgi at the foot of the queen's bed, I'm not sure how much more Sinn Fein could do to indicate that their war has been lost and the surrender terms penned by the British," said Belfast commentator Alex Kane, a former Protestant political activist.
More troublingly, supporters of small IRA groups that still mount occasional shootings and bombings in Northern Ireland have daubed walls in McGuinness' home city with slogans denouncing Sinn Fein as "sellouts." And overnight, the hillside overlooking Sinn Fein's other principal power base, Catholic west Belfast, was decorated with a massive Irish flag and the slogan "Erin (Ireland) is our Queen."
Such fears that a future IRA might rise out of alienated Catholic districts were nowhere to be heard Tuesday in Enniskillen as the queen arrived in a 10-car motorcade for an ecumenical church service in honor of her 60th anniversary on the throne. Sinn Fein members stayed away from the event.
She and her husband Prince Philip received a standing ovation as she visited the town's Catholic cathedral, her first visit to a Catholic Church in her 20 visits to Northern Ireland as queen. And in the neighboring Protestant cathedral, a veritable who's who of Northern Ireland religious life and politics gathered to pray for continued peace. Church leaders praised the contribution of Elizabeth, who last year made her first tour of the Republic of Ireland to broad public support. Sinn Fein was heavily criticized for boycotting her visit.
Archbishop Alan Harper, leader of the Anglican-affiliated Church of Ireland, said in his sermon that the queen's tour of the Irish Republic "was an occasion of profound significance and deep emotion" that signaled an era of genuine peace "perhaps for the first time ever in the recorded history of this island."
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