Queen Elizabeth II was to arrive in Northern Ireland on Tuesday for a two-day visit that will include a historic meeting with former IRA leader turned deputy first minister Martin McGuinness.
In a landmark moment for the peace process, the British monarch will on Wednesday shake hands with McGuinness, whose Sinn Fein party is the political wing of the now-defunct Irish Republican Army paramilitary group.
"This is about stretching out the hand of peace and reconciliation to Queen Elizabeth who represents hundreds of thousands of unionists in the north," McGuinness said ahead of the queen's arrival on Tuesday.
"It is about me representing my party, wishing to show the unionist people in the north that we are prepared to respect what they believe in."
But he added: "We are still Irish republicans. After I meet with Queen Elizabeth, I will still be an Irish republican."
The 85-year-old queen and her husband Philip will begin the visit Tuesday by visiting Enniskillen in the south of the province, where she will attend a service at the town's St Macartin's Church of Ireland Cathedral.
The trip, to mark Queen Elizabeth's diamond jubilee, will also see the royal couple attend a garden party on Wednesday with 22,000 invited guests in the grounds of Belfast's Parliament Buildings, known as Stormont.
The queen's visits to Northern Ireland are normally kept secret until her arrival, and the advance announcement of the trip is another sign of the improved security situation.
The meeting with McGuinness at Belfast's Lyric theatre is separate from the celebrations for the queen's 60th year on the throne. Michael D. Higgins, the president of the Republic of Ireland, will also be present.
It is the latest step in McGuinness's journey from militant to peacemaker, which saw him take a leading role in both the sectarian violence that plagued Northern Ireland for three decades and the peace process that followed.
Sinn Fein continues to reject British rule of Northern Ireland.
Last year the queen and her husband made a landmark visit to the Republic of Ireland, the first by a British monarch since it won independence in 1922.
The visit required the republic's biggest-ever security operation, but through some highly symbolic gestures -- including speaking in Irish -- she melted away enough post-colonial angst to permit a walkabout.
In 1979 the IRA assassinated Prince Philip's uncle Louis Mountbatten by bombing his boat while he was on holiday in the Republic of Ireland.
The queen and Philip have been touring Britain in celebration of her diamond jubilee, while other royals are travelling the Commonwealth, from Canada to Tuvalu.© ANP/AFP