Britain's heir to the throne Prince Charles shook hands with Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams during his visit to the National University of Ireland in Galway. (AFP)

Prince Charles met Sinn Fein party president Gerry Adams during a trip to western Ireland on Tuesday in what was billed as a hugely significant moment for Anglo-Irish relations.

Charles, holding a cup of tea, exchanged a few words with Adams at a reception in a crowded, noisy room at the National University of Ireland in Galway. He then had a private meeting with the leadership of Sinn Fein. Charles is the first senior member of the British royal family to meet with Adams.

Speaking after the meeting, Adams told reporters: “We did discuss the need for the entire process to move forward, particularly in terms of people who have suffered, families who have been bereaved, and the need to heal,” he said.

“It was a big thing for him to do and was also a big thing for us,” he added.

Adams has always denied being a member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), though former members have identified him as a leading figure in the organization, which until 1998 led an armed campaign against British rule in Northern Ireland. The group killed the prince’s great-uncle Louis Mountbatten in 1979.

In recent years, there have been a number of significant handshakes and visits in the long road to reconciliation between Ireland and the United Kingdom, a union consisting of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In 2012 during a visit to Belfast, Queen Elizabeth II, the U.K. head of state, extended a gloved hand to Martin McGuinness, a Sinn Fein member, deputy first minister of Northern Ireland’s provincial government and a former IRA commander.

The meeting Tuesday with Charles, the queen’s oldest son, carries particular weight in part because he is the colonel in chief of the British Army’s Parachute Regiment. The regiment played an important role in the “Troubles,” the name given to the three decades of violence and bloodshed in Northern Ireland that largely ended in 1998 with the Good Friday peace accord. The regiment’s soldiers were involved in the killing of 14 unarmed civilians during a protest march in 1972, an incident that became known as Bloody Sunday.

The IRA has also hit at the heart of the royal family. In 1979, the IRA killed Louis Mountbatten and three others with a bomb that exploded on Mountbatten’s fishing boat. Charles adored his great-uncle and was devastated when he died.

At the time, Adams reportedly said of Mountbatten’s death: “With his war record, I don't think he could have objected to dying in what was clearly a war situation.”

Adams now leads Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the IRA, which is now in a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland. In recent years, the Irish nationalist party has also become a political force in Ireland.

Sinn Fein’s participation in this royal visit is in sharp contrast to the queen’s visit to Ireland in 2011 — the first official visit by a British monarch in a century — when the party was seen to be standing on the sidelines.

“When the queen came to the republic in 2011, Sinn Fein was on the outside looking in, and I think that was regarded as a misjudgment. They are keener with the Prince Charles visit to make themselves a part of the narrative of the visit,” said Diarmaid Ferriter, a professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin.

For Sinn Fein, Charles’s visit is a balancing act, Ferriter said. On the one hand, to win over more voters, the party wants to emphasize its support of reconciliation and symbolic visits such as the one by Charles. On the other, Sinn Fein needs to stick to the party line and its dedication to the unification of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom.

Ahead of the meeting, Adams issued a statement that seemed to appeal to different constituencies. He acknowledged Charles’s role in the British Army but also noted that the heir to the British throne had suffered at the hands of Irish republicans. Somewhat mischievously, he also praised the good work of the “English queen.”

As part of his four-day trip to the island, Charles and his wife, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, will visit Mullaghmore, the seaside village where Mountbatten was killed.

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