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Queen, ex-IRA chief shake hands in Belfast

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II meets public after Service Thanksgiving Saint Macartin's Cathedral Enniskillen Northern IrelTuesday June 26 2012. The Queen

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II meets the public after a Service of Thanksgiving in Saint Macartin's Cathedral in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, Tuesday, June 26, 2012. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh arrived in Northern Ireland for a two day visit to mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

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BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Queen Elizabeth II and a former Irish Republican Army commander have offered each other the hand of peace in a long-awaited encounter symbolizing Northern Ireland’s progress in achieving reconciliation after decades of violence.

Northern Ireland Office officials say the monarch and Martin McGuinness met privately Wednesday inside a Belfast theater during a cross-community arts event. Media were barred from the event, but the two are expected to have a public handshake later.

Experts say McGuinness was the IRA’s chief of staff when the outlawed group assassinated the queen’s cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten, in 1979.

The IRA renounced violence and disarmed in 2005. Two years later, McGuinness became the senior Catholic in Northern Ireland’s unity government.

McGuinness’ Irish nationalist party, Sinn Fein, had refused all contact with British royals until Wednesday.

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