Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has said his visit to Windsor Castle last week sends a clear message to unionists in the North that “things have to change.”
Mr McGuinness attended a state banquet, hosted by Queen Elizabeth, as part of the state visit by President Michael D. Higgins, the first such visit by an Irish head of State to Britain.
In doing so, he became the first republican leader to attend a royal event in Britain and took part, along with other guests, in a toast to the Queen.
His attendance at the banquet attracted international media attention and images of Mr McGuinness at the event were carried by news outlets around the world.
The senior Sinn Féin leader acknowledged his presence at the event may have been difficult for some, including nationalists and republicans, to understand but insisted it represented a significant step towards reconciliation.
“We can talk about peace and reconciliation and there is a lot of talk but it is not just about words; it is about deeds and trying to do things which will contribute to the consolidation of the peace process and the change process,” he said.
“I represented a challenge for nationalists and republicans. I never underestimated that challenge for people, many of whom have very legitimate opinions about the past and about Britain’s involvement in the conflict here but the decision I made to attend was intended to make further contributions in a spirit of generosity to the consolidation of peace in this country,” he added.
Mr McGuinness said the image of the Tricolour flying alongside the Union flag in Windsor was particularly striking. “It really makes an impression when you go into the town of Windsor and see Tricolours festooning the lampposts on a equal basis with the union flag. It was quite obvious that great efforts were made to make people feel welcome on the basis of equality, not superiority,” he said. The Sinn Féin leader said he hopes the visit will improve community relations.
“Meeting Queen Elizabeth was not just an act of reconciliation, it was an opportunity for me to reach out the hand of friendship, through her, to the unionist community in the North.
“Queen Elizabeth is not my queen but she is queen to people who regard themselves as British and I have to respect that reality but President Higgins is my president and I believe his words, alongside those of Queen Elizabeth, amount to something very significant.
The Deputy First Minister said unionists now have a duty to make similar strides towards reconciliation. “For me, the biggest message that comes out of the events of last week was how it was handled from a British perspective sends a very clear message to unionist politicians and to pro-British organisations such as the Orange Order that things have to change and change dramatically in terms of recognising the validity of the traditions I represent and President Higgins represents, those of Irish nationalism and republicanism.
“The starkness of the imagery of those flags, the flags of the Irish people and the British people adorning the streets of Windsor sends a clear message to people about where we need to go in the future and the need for equality,” he said.
Mr McGuinness said unionists in Derry are already taking postive steps towards reconciliation and described the city as a “beacon of hope” for others.
“There is still progress to be made but in this city we have been doing well. I say that as another initiative is forthcoming from the Loyalist Bands Forum, a group who I think contributed in a very mature and positive way to the success of Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann and the events of last year in the city. I am tremendously encouraged by the reiteration of their position that they want to continue to do that and I know they are going to be involved in the Pan Celtic Festival next week. All of that warms my heart.
“The people of this city stand as a very clear example of how the future needs to unfold. I think Derry is a beacon of hope. I think that others ignore at their peril the huge progress that has been made in this city.
“One of the legacies of last year has been a real reaching out to other communities in Derry. The response from young people in particular to events such as the tattoo, the Fleadh, One Big Weekend, was fantastic,” he said.
Mr McGuinness said he is continually encouraged by the positivity of young people and said it challenges political leaders. “My going to Windsor was as much for the young people as it was for anyone else because I recognise that I have a duty and responsibilty to give leadership to those people.
“Last year I was struck day after day at all the events by young people who were effectively saying to me ‘you have my future in your hands and you can move forward in a positive and constructive way or you can move forward in a spirt of negativity.’ I am not interested in being negative. I am not interested in being a no man. I am only interested in delivering for all of the people, the people who vote for my party and those who don’t and if that means taking risks for peace then I am prepared to take those risks,” he said.
He also said responsible leadership can help deliver employment for young people and suggested Derry may be in line for a jobs boost. “There is a real opportunity to attract foreign direct investment and to support our own business community. That is one of the reasons I went on the Japanese trip with Peter Robinson which secured almost 200 jobs at Fujitsu. I am confident that as a result of our last visit to the west coast of the United States that there will be more good news for Derry in the course of the coming weeks and months,” he said.
The republican leader also predicted “significant gains” for Sinn Féin the upcoming elections. “Across Ireland in the European elections we have a very real prospect of winning four seats which would be extraordinary but it is absolutely achievable. At local government level here in the city and across the island we can confidently predict very substantial gains for Sinn Féin,” he said.