Northern Ireland deputy first minister and former IRA commander Martin McGuinness has heaped praise on the Queen for taking a leadership role in the peace process.
Mr McGuinness — who snubbed the 2011 ground- breaking royal visit to Ireland — will be a special guest at a state banquet at Windsor Castle during the first official visit to the UK of an Irish president this week.
Confirming his attendance, which would have been unthinkable a decade ago, Mr McGuinness said the Queen was a “staunch supporter” of the peace process.
“I think she played a leadership role and is playing a leadership role in the whole context of the need for reconciliation,” he said.
Mr McGuinness was given the green light to accept the invitation to the Queen’s official residence and private home during a leadership meeting of Sinn Féin.
“All of the information that I have received was that this was something that she wanted to do, that this wasn’t something that she was told to do by the Government,” he said of the invite.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny welcomed the decision, saying people had to “move on and not be blocked by the past”.
Mr McGuinness — who will also attend other events in the UK during the four-day state visit by President Michael D Higgins — said he was moved by the Queen’s trip to the Republic three years ago.
He told RTÉ radio: “I was tremendously impressed by the very solemn way that she commemorated those Irish republicans who lost their lives in the struggle for independence, how she acknowledged the importance of the Irish language and, probably most important of all, when she acknowledged that she had wished that things had been done differently or not at all.”
“That was very, very impressive and I think that it is quite clear that this is a woman that is playing a leadership role.”
A Buckingham Palace spokesman said: “There is a long-standing practice of not commenting on individual invitations. That said, Her Majesty is greatly looking forward to this historic state visit and welcoming all guests to Windsor Castle.”
The Queen met and shook hands with Mr McGuinness in Belfast two years ago, in what was seen as another step forward in Anglo-Irish relations and a momentous landmark in the peace process.
The highly successful state visit to Ireland by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh in May 2011 paved the way for the latest milestone.
In remarkable scenes, the Queen paid her respects to republican dead at Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance, visited Croke Park — site of the 1920 Bloody Sunday massacre — and made a speech on Anglo-Irish history at Dublin Castle.
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