Setting the seal

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The significance of the handshake that took place in Belfast this week was lost on no one, least of all on the two participants, the Queen Elizabeth and the Northern Irish Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

That such a public handshake took place sets the seal on changes that are not to be underestimated. It is a transformation, which, for all the misgivings of some in Northern Ireland, has entailed a shift in attitudes on both sides. How else could the queen have made a successful state visit to the Irish Republic, as she did last year? How else could McGuinness, a former Irish Republican Army commander, have joined a government that owes allegiance to the British Crown?

But the transformation in Northern Ireland, impressive though it is, should not be overestimated, either. That peace prevails, though sometimes uneasily, has improved life for almost everyone. Sectarian violence, and all that came with it – armed troops on the streets, internment, hunger strikes and UK mainland bombings – is now a memory, though still vivid in many a mind. Yet reconciliation has been much slower in coming. In such basics as housing and schooling, the two communities, Protestant and Catholic, loyalist and republican, live mostly separate lives. But the progress emphasised by the handshake should not be underestimated.

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