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British Queen Shakes Hand of Former IRA Leader

LONDON - Britain's Queen Elizabeth II on Wednesday shook hands with the former commander of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, or IRA, the group that waged war against British rule in Northern Ireland. An IRA bomb killed the Queen's cousin in 1979.

It was once unthinkable that a British monarch would shake hands with the former leader of the IRA, which fought a three-decade long war against British rule in Northern Ireland.

Martin McGuinness is now a lawmaker with Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing, and deputy first minister.

John Bew, director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence at Kings College London, says the handshake shows Northern Ireland has moved on from decades of civil strife, but that the symbolism is being overplayed.

“There’s a huge debate within the republican movement, from which Sinn Fein heralds, as to whether this is ideologically a correct thing to do," said Bew. "But the key thing you’ve got to understand is that it keeps Martin McGuinness in the limelight; it keeps Sinn Fein making headlines. And it keeps their project on the news at all times.”

The meeting between McGuinness and Queen Elizabeth took place in a theater in a Belfast suburb. Microphones were banned.

At one point, McGuinness appeared alongside the Queen’s husband Prince Philip. But the prince moved away swiftly.

In 1979, Prince Philip’s uncle - the Queen’s cousin, Lord Mountbatten - was killed by an IRA bomb planted on his boat in the Republic of Ireland.

Violence between Protestants loyal to the crown and Catholics fighting for a united Ireland appeared to have no end, claiming more than 3,500 lives.

John Bew of Kings College says tensions still remain.

“Breakaway organizations from the IRA, like the Real IRA, the Continuity IRA, have not been as successful as they would like," he said. "They have not broken away a significant portion of popular support from Sinn Fein, but they still pose a deadly threat and contain some very serious individuals.”

Queen Elizabeth's visit to Northern Ireland is part of her Diamond Jubilee celebration. There has been some opposition to the visit, but the majority of Northern Ireland’s politicians support the meeting with Martin McGuinness. The handshake was over in seconds. But with so much blood shed that preceded it, analysts say it was a historic moment.