Lyric Theatre stages historic handshake

In a history stretching back more than five decades, the Lyric Theatre Belfast has staged many dramas.

But yesterday an arts event up-staged the professional actors and shone international media attention on the Ridgeway Street theatre.

The Lyric Theatre was the chosen venue for the first ever meeting of Her Majesty The Queen and the former IRA commander, deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness.

Regarded as a highly significant milestone in the peace process, the two former enemies shook hands in the entrance foyer for a photograph that was immediately whizzed around the world.

The meeting took place during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee visit to Northern Ireland.

The charity Co-operation Ireland, whose Joint Patrons are The Queen and President of Ireland, organised an arts event at the Lyric to stage the meeting.

The organisation had previously facilitated the first meeting between Her Majesty and the then President of Ireland Mary McAleese in Crosby Hall London in 2005 and then followed this up with a meeting in Hillsborough Castle to mark the 30th anniversary of the charity in May 2009.

At around 10.30am on Wednesday 27 June, the First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness arrived at the Lyric. They were swiftly followed by the President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins and his wife, Mrs Sabina Higgins. Just minutes later Her Majesty The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh arrived at the theatre and were escorted to the McGrath Suite on the ground floor.

It was in this room at a private meeting that the first handshake took place away from public view and with no cameras allowed.

The McGrath Suite is named after generous Lyric donors, Harvey and Allison McGrath, philanthropists that have donated a lot to educational causes.

The room overlooking the River Lagan is used for creative learning and outreach work so it was a very appropriate setting for the historic meeting.

“A day in which hope and history rhyme”

The dignitaries then moved to the Naughton Studio – the smaller of the Lyric’s two theatre spaces – to meet 50 guests from the arts world. These included the poet Michael Longley CBE, pianist Barry Douglas, singer Brian Kennedy and actors Adrian Dunbar, Stella McCusker and Conleth Hill. Dublin-born actor Patrick Moy who is starring in the Lyric’s current production of The Importance of Being Earnest also attended on behalf of the cast.

Community arts groups were represented by the Nerve Centre and Playhouse Theatre in Derry, Best Cellars in Dundonald, the Cross-Border Orchestra, Belfast Exposed and the Creativity Hub amongst others.

A special exhibition by the artist Colin Davidson had been arranged in the Lyric’s café bar where the visitors were able to meet and talk to the artist.

Peter Sheridan, Chief Executive of Co-operation Ireland said: “Today is, in the words of Seamus Heaney a day in which hope and history rhyme. It is a significant milestone on the road to reconciliation on this island and between our two islands. In a very relaxed atmosphere what struck me was the ordinariness of the handshake by people who are in no way ordinary.

“The event itself highlighted the importance of the arts and it acknowledged those people who play a pivotal role in ensuring the arts are enjoyed by all in our society.”

A spokesman for the theatre said: “The Lyric theatre is delighted to work with Co-operation Ireland in hosting this auspicious occasion. We have long believed the arts have the capacity to transform lives for the better. The Lyric looks forward to building on the success of today’s event.”