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Never thought I'd see this day: Reflecting on queen's historic meeting with ex-IRA commander

Martin McGuinness, a former commander of the Irish Republican Army met with Queen Elizabeth in Northern Ireland. It was a historic moment decades after the IRA led a bloody fight against British rule. NBC's Michelle Kosinski reports.

Thirty-five years ago, Queen Elizabeth's silver jubilee was greeted with graffiti declaring "Victory to the IRA, stuff the jubilee."

Wednesday marked a highly significant turnaround as the queen, in her diamond jubilee year, met and shook hands with a onetime senior Irish Republican Army commander who once stood against everything she represented and even considered her a legitimate target.

As a British person and a journalist, I never thought I'd see this day.


This is because I grew up with Northern Ireland. What does this mean? It means watching with incredulity as the IRA targeted the British establishment, including a sitting prime minister -- almost succeeding in assassinating her.

Coverage of event by NBC News' U.K. partner ITN News

The "troubles," as they were diplomatically called, became part of everyday life. We watched clashes with soldiers on television. News of bombings was a constant drip-drip in the news. It was one of those things that as a boy and a young man, I thought would never end. 

So the meeting with Martin McGuinness, 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 militant group ended its 30-year campaign against British rule.

PhotoBlog: A historic handshake, a historic image in Northern Ireland's peace process

On Tuesday, she held a private meeting with relatives of the 11 people killed in a 1987 bombing in Enniskillen, an attack that sparked a wave of revulsion against the IRA and helped convince its leadership to engage in the peace process.

3,500 killed
Belfast's Lyric theater, the venue of the historic handshake, has probably never felt so much attention during a performance as it did during the get-together between the British monarchy and Sinn Fein. 

Photos: Queen Elizabeth II begins her 20th trip to Northern Ireland

Few will know what the queen was thinking. But surely it was a difficult event for her, and not just because of the more than 3,500 killed in the conflict, 1,800 of whom were innocent civilians, according to The Guardian.

Paul Faith / Pool via AFP - Getty Images

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II shakes hands with Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness in Belfast on Wednesday.

It is doubtless especially poignant for her because her cousin, Lord Mountbatten, was killed in 1979 when the IRA blew up his boat in Southern Ireland. He was the man who many believe was responsible for the queen's marriage to Prince Philip, and was a guiding influence to the heir-to-the-throne Prince Charles.

The countless threats her family has lived with must have contributed to a feeling of unease ahead of the meeting. But the queen's real thoughts will probably never be known, nor will her reaction when she was advised to perform this duty.

'It will be difficult': Queen meets IRA victims before landmark handshake

And it wasn't only the queen who was taking a chance -- it came at a cost for McGuinness too. He was being branded a traitor, with a lot of republicans saying that he has sold out and betrayed the principles they stand for.

Republicans protested against Wednesday's meeting, and McGuinness' decision could hurt his political ambitions.

British reaction on a political level has by and large been supportive, despite the bitterness and painful memories of the past.

Norman Tebbit, a former Conservative Party Chairman and a survivor of a deadly bombing in the seaside city of Brighton that targeted Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, saw it as a victory over the IRA.

Before Wednesday's event, Tebbit wrote in The Telegraph that the meeting would be a victory for the queen, the monarchy and Great Britain: 

"I am glad that Mr McGuinness appears to have now accepted on behalf of IRA/Sinn Fein the sovereignty of Her Majesty over Northern Ireland, and I hope that this is a step towards a public recompense and confession of his regret for the violence unleashed by them in his name."

While the meeting does not mark the end of tensions in Northern Ireland, it draws a line under a conflict that cost the lives of thousands and beset the queen for half of her reign.

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