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28 June 2012

The handshake

The handshake

It was not surprising that the Queen would visit each corner of her kingdom in the year of her Diamond Jubilee. It was not surprising that in Northern Ireland more than 20,000 well-wishers packed the tree-lined avenue of Stormont to celebrate and welcome her. Yet 27June 2012 will be remembered for two people sharing one moment we could not have imagined.

The handshake silently spoke volumes. And like many things in Northern Ireland, it did not escape controversy. Some unionists saw it as a political hijacking of the sovereign's Jubilee, some republicans saw it as the ultimate betrayal of all they stood for. Most welcomed it as a huge leap forward in Anglo-Irish relations. The symbolism however was indisputable, almost palpable and cannot be over-stated.

A handshake can be read as a greeting, a welcome, a 'congratulations', a sign of equality, trust and respect. The origins are thought to be that an open-handed offer showed that there was no weapon and no malice. In this case that significance ran deep. The head of the British armed forces met a former commander of the Irish Republican Army. The face of the British monarchy met the face of Irish republicanism. A relative of a murder victim met a former member of the organisation responsible. A coming together of two social and political ideologies, two icons of our times, two people made in the image of God.

In days gone by, the murder of the Queen by the IRA would have been the ultimate coup. How then have we got to the stage where a weapon-less hand of peace is offered instead? Well, it's been difficult, slow, risky and painful. A lot of blood and tears have been spilled; sweat too. Misunderstanding and distrust still linger, awkwardly conspicuous at times but the 'never' and the 'no' are fading.

Jesus said that peacemakers will be blessed but they will also be criticised - especially if they were involved in the war. Making peace involves significant change. It's obvious that something needs to change to move from conflict to ceasefire, from war to peace. The Queen remains a Royal and Martin McGuinness, a Republican but there is clearly a change of heart. Peacemaking is an ongoing process. The handshake was a powerful reminder of how far we've come, but it will take more time, more risk and more change.

United Ireland or United Kingdom? God knows. And for Christ-followers, even though earthly kingdoms rise and fall, our identity remains in His. Are we as evangelical Christians willing to change? Are we prepared to share daily the reconciliation and forgiveness we have received from Christ?

Rev Dr Harold Good, who witnessed the IRA decommissioning in 1994, invites us to risk change: "We're in a new place, come and join us."

David Smyth is public policy officer for the Evangelical Alliance in Northern Ireland.