31 May 2012

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth is to visit Northern Ireland next month, Buckingham Palace said on Thursday, the first time since the outbreak of sectarian violence in the 1960s that a trip there by the monarch has been announced in advance.

The visit, part of the 86-year-old Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, raises the possibility of her first meeting with former guerrilla commander Martin McGuinness, once a leading figure in the Irish Republican Army who currently serves as the province’s No. 2 official.

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 Fein, and a meeting would be a significant landmark in the peace process.

The June 26-27 visit will take the queen and her husband Philip to Belfast and Enniskillen, scene of an IRA bombing that killed 11 people at a memorial service in 1987, Buckingham Palace said in a statement.

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 in advance.

“It’s a sign of progress that advance notice can be given to allow public presence,” First Minister Peter Robinson, the senior Unionist politician in the province’s power-sharing government, said in a message posted on Twitter.

The queen regularly meets senior Unionist politicians, who want Northern Ireland to maintain its position in the United Kingdom, but not Sinn Fein, the largest party representing Republicans who want a united Ireland.

A poll by the Belfast Telegraph newspaper last week found that 54 percent of delegates at Sinn Fein’s national congress supported allowing a meeting between the queen and McGuinness, the party’s most senior politician in Northern Ireland. The party would have to approve such a meeting.

A source in Northern Ireland’s government told Reuters he would be surprised if McGuinness did not meet the queen during the visit. Buckingham Palace has not released further details of the queen’s schedule.

In a sign of a softening of the party’s attitude to the royal family, Sinn Fein last week said it would not block the Northern Ireland government from giving the queen a present to mark the Diamond Jubilee, the 60th anniversary of her accession to the throne.

Last year, the party refused to support sending a gift for the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.

The queen last visited Northern Ireland in 2010.

(Writing by Conor Humphries; Editing by Alessandra Rizzo)