Martin McGuinness, the former IRA commander who is now deputy first minister in Northern Ireland, has accepted an invitation to meet the Queen, raising the prospect of a symbolic first handshake between a Sinn Féin representative and the monarch.
The meeting will take place on Wednesday during a two-day visit to Northern Ireland by the Queen to mark her diamond jubilee. It will be another significant step forward for the peace process, which brought an end to almost 30 years of bloodshed during “the Troubles”.
Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Féin, said on Friday the party had agreed in the spirit of national reconciliation to accept the invitation and that it was likely that a handshake would now take place.
“This will understandably cause difficulties for some republicans and nationalists,” said Mr Adams following a four-hour meeting of the party’s national executive, which considered the invitation.
“Especially for those folks who suffered at the hands of British forces,” he said.
Sinn Féin, which is the political arm of the now decommissioned IRA, aims to end British rule in Ireland and has previously boycotted royal visits to Ireland.
Last year Mr McGuinness declined an invitation to attend a state dinner at Dublin Castle when the Queen made her first state visit to the Republic of Ireland.
The Queen has never met a senior figure in Sinn Féin or the IRA, which killed her cousin Lord Mountbatten at Mullaghmore, Co Sligo, in 1979.
The invitation was extended to Mr McGuinness by a cross-border charity called Co-Operation Ireland, which works to build bridges between divided communities in Northern Ireland and the Republic. Queen Elizabeth and Michael D Higgins, Ireland’s president, are joint patrons of the charity.
Mr Adams said Sinn Féin’s vision was for an Ireland where all citizens could live comfortably and in harmony and mutual respect.
“Our vision of a new Republic is one in which the Orange and Green unite in a cordial union. Today’s decision reflects a confident, dynamic, forward-looking Sinn Féin demonstrating our genuine desire to embrace our unionist neighbours,” said Mr Adams.