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Queen Elizabeth to hold historic meeting with former IRA commander

In an act of unprecedented and powerful symbolism, Queen Elizabeth will shake hands with Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness next week. The historic handshake will, however, take place behind closed doors. ITN's royal correspondent Tim Ewart reports.

Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness, a former Irish Republican Army commander, will meet with Britain's Queen Elizabeth II next week and shake hands in an historic first for the Northern Ireland peace process, the party has confirmed.

The Northern Ireland deputy first minister will attend a cross border event in Belfast on Wednesday, which the president of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, will also attend.


Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams said the decision had been taken after consulting with grass roots support and allowing the party's ruling council, the ard comhairle, to decide at a 4-hour meeting in Dublin.

“This will understandably cause difficulties for some republicans and nationalists,” Adams said. “Especially for those folks who suffered at the hands of British forces.”

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Sinn Fein confirmed that Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness and First Minister Peter Robinson are to meet with Queen Elizabeth II during her visit to Northern Ireland next week. They are shown here arriving for a meeting at 10 Downing Street on June 8, 2011 in London.

Adams, who, alongside McGuinness, helped end decades of sectarian violence and gave Catholics an equal voice in a power-sharing government with former Protestant foes, said, "This is a very significant initiative by us. We don't have to do it, we are doing it despite the fact that it will cause difficulties for some of our own folk but we think it's good for Ireland."

Sinn Féin stressed the meeting is not a celebration of the queen's Diamond Jubilee, although 86-year-old monarch will be in Northern Ireland at the time for jubilee events.

There has been speculation since the queen's momentous visit to Ireland in May last year that a senior Sinn Féin figure would meet her at an event.

Stefan Wermuth / Reuters

Britain's Queen Elizabeth smiles after her horse Estimate won The Queen's Vase on Friday, the fourth day at Royal Ascot, southwest of London.

McGuinness was always the candidate to shake the queen's hand but delicate talks have been going on for months to arrange a suitable venue and occasion.

The meeting is understood to be taking place in the Lyric Theatre in south Belfast and is sponsored by Co-operation Ireland, which works to bring divided communities together.

Since it was established in 1979, the charity has created opportunities for groups from the two main religious communities in Northern Ireland and from both sides of the border to learn about each other's traditions and cultures.

Adams said the party's decision was not unanimous but that a clear majority were in favor of the meeting. He also confirmed that McGuinness would "of course" shake hands with the queen.

The handshake will be viewed as another in a long list of dramatic advances in Anglo-Irish relations.

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The queen has never met a senior figure in the now-defunct IRA, which killed her cousin Lord Mountbatten in 1979, or its political wing Sinn Féin.

The IRA ended its 30-year armed campaign against British rule 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 Tuesday and Wednesday visit was the first to be announced in advance since violence broke out in the 1960s and will see the queen and her husband, Philip, travel to Belfast and Enniskillen, scene of an IRA bombing that killed 11 people at a memorial service in 1987.

ITV is an international television partner of NBC News. This article also contains reporting by Reuters and Jim Gold, msnbc.com staff. Follow Gold on Facebook here.

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