On a late summer morning in 1979, Lord Louis Mountbatten, a second cousin of Queen Elizabeth II, boarded a small fishing boat on the coast of Ireland along with his daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren. The group was only a few hundred yards from shore when a remote-controlled bomb, hidden in the craft the previous night, was detonated. The boat was blown to pieces and Mountbatten, his 14-year-old grandson, and a 15-year-old boatman were killed. Another passenger, the Baroness Brabourne, later died from her injuries.
The Irish Republican Army (IRA) paramilitary group took credit for the assassination soon after, releasing a statement that read: “This operation is one of the discriminate ways we can bring to the attention of the English people the continuing occupation of our country.”
On Wednesday, nearly 33 years after Mountbatten’s death, the Queen, who was reportedly close to her cousin, met with former IRA commander Martin McGuinness in Belfast. Though allegedly with the IRA at the time of Mountbatten’s death, McGuinness is now an MP for Sinn Féin, the Irish republican party (which contests elections both in Ireland and Northern Ireland), and the deputy first minister of Northern Ireland. The significance of the meeting, as well as the handshake the two shared—labeled “historic” and “a milestone” by commentators—has resonated throughout Ireland and the U.K.
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Peter Sheridan, the chief executive of Co-operation Ireland, a charity that focuses on fostering peace in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, saw the handshake as an “act of reconciliation.” Though symbolic, Sheridan felt the meeting between the monarch and McGuinness acknowledged a willingness to confront the conflict. “I think this generation has a responsibility to deal with these issues and not leave it until the next generation to address,” he says.
But the event has stirred up memories of recent history for both the British and the Irish.
Shocking as the death of Mountbatten was, the attack was one of many carried out by the IRA during their campaign. (Only a few hours after his death, the group ambushed and killed 18 British Army soldiers near the Northern Ireland border.) And though the IRA was the most prominent, it was only one of several paramilitary groups that operated in the region. In Northern Ireland, the period of conflict that claimed more than 3500 lives, known as the Troubles, was marked by routine sectarian violence as the predominantly Catholic republicans warred against the mostly Protestant loyalists.
Even after the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement — which promised Ireland’s input into Northern Ireland’s governance, while also stating that the region would remain a part of the UK so long as the majority in Northern Ireland favored it – was signed, it was another decade before widespread paramilitary violence had run its course.
Irish-Anglo relations have come a long way since the throes of the Troubles. The Queen’s visit to the Republic of Ireland last year – a first for the monarch – was widely deemed a success. Yet the meeting between the former IRA-chief and the monarch was met with some resistance.
Anger towards McGuinness was readily apparent in the days leading up to the event. Writing in the Daily Mail, Andrew Pierce argued that David Cameron had goaded the Queen into meeting “a terrible man on British soil.” He claimed that the meeting was political opportunism on McGuinness’s part, a cheap attempt to piggyback off the success of the Queen’s previous visit.
Reverend Peter Mullen, a priest with the Church of England, took to the Daily Telegraph to vent his disgust: “The vision of our gracious Queen in her Diamond Jubilee year being obliged to extend her noble hand to ‘Commander’ Martin McGuinness is enough to turn the stomach.”
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But it was scenes reminiscent of decades past that truly highlighted opposition. On Tuesday night, more than a hundred protesters took to the streets of Belfast, using gasoline bombs to vandalize property and injure police officers. While police said they didn’t believe the violence was orchestrated, reports that an earlier clash had erupted over an Irish flag and anti-royalist signs point to a simmering disaffection. The turmoil prompted police to section off a one-mile exclusion zone around the meeting place.
While McGuinness met with the Queen with the official support of the Sinn Fein party, not all republicans were pleased. The handshake could be a political gamble for McGuinness, according to Dr. Tony Craig, a modern history lecturer at Staffordshire University and the author of the book Crisis of Confidence: Anglo-Irish Relations of the Early Troubles. “A significant minority of Sinn Fein’s supporters would view this as an act of fealty to the monarchy.”
Craig added that backlash from paramilitary and vigilante groups that still operate in Northern Ireland was a possibility. Though McGuinness has publicly said that the meeting with the monarch was a symbolic gesture towards unionists in Northern Ireland and Ireland, Craig pointed out that there are many “anti-royalists” in the party and “there is the potential that McGuinness has underestimated the republican-ness of republicans.”