Martin McGuinness, the ex-IRA commander turned Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, will meet Queen Elizabeth II next week in a historic first for the peace process, his party said on Friday.
The republican Sinn Fein party said McGuinness had been invited to meet the monarch at an event in Belfast on Wednesday, which Irish President Michael Higgins will also attend.
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams said the party leadership had decided on Friday that the meeting should go ahead, saying it was the “right thing to do at the right time and for the right reasons.”
“In the context of conflict resolution and national reconciliation, as well as our own republican national objectives, the Sinn Fein Ard Chomhairle [national executive] agreed that Martin should accept the invitation,” he said.
“I accept that this decision will cause genuine and understandable difficulties for some people, not least some of the victims of the British crown forces in Ireland,” he said.
Adams stressed that the event was not part of the celebrations for the queen’s diamond jubilee, marking her 60th year on the throne.
Buckingham Palace would only confirm that McGuinness had been invited.
“We understand that Martin McGuinness has been invited to the meeting,” a spokesman said, refusing to comment further.
It is the latest step in McGuinness’s journey from militant to peacemaker, which saw him take a leading role in both the sectarian violence that plagued Northern Ireland for three decades and the peace process that followed.
Sinn Fein is the political wing of the now-defunct Irish Republican Army paramilitary group.
It has always boycotted royal engagements in Northern Ireland in the past.
Sinn Fein members have always refused to take up their seats in the British parliament because it would mean swearing an oath of allegiance to the monarch.
However, McGuinness signaled a change in his stance during his campaign for the Irish presidency earlier this year, when he said he would be willing to welcome all heads of state, including the British queen, if elected.
Last year, the queen and her husband, Prince Philip, made a landmark visit to the Republic of Ireland, the first by a British monarch since it won independence in 1922.
Seen as the last piece in the jigsaw of peace in Northern Ireland, which remains part of the UK, the visit required the republic’s biggest-ever security operation.
However, through some highly symbolic gestures — including speaking in Irish — she melted away enough post-colonial angst to permit a walkabout.