A historic encounter that will push peace process politics several steps forward
The meeting between the queen and Martin McGuinness represents quite a step for both, writes GERRY MORIARTYNorthern Editor
SO TWO army leaders – one serving, one former – are to come face to face in Belfast on Wednesday. Queen Elizabeth II as commander-in-chief of the British armed forces will meet Martin McGuinness, alleged former chief of staff of the IRA, in the carefully set-up ambience of a Belfast arts reception.
They’re both professionals, so they should be able to carry out the engagement with good grace and manners, and thus put another piece of British-Irish history to bed. It’s important because no matter what way you look at it, this gesture pushes peace process politics several more steps forward and demonstrates to unionists and dissidents and everyone on these islands that Sinn Féin is now much more than a slightly constitutional party – as was said a long time ago about Fianna Fáil in reference to its IRA past.
It’s as close to an irrevocable statement of peace as is probably possible to get.
One would love to know their inner thoughts when the encounter finally takes place. Perhaps Queen Elizabeth will be recalling how the IRA, which Mr McGuinness (allegedly) led for so long, blew up her husband Prince Philip’s uncle, Lord Louis Mountbatten on a boat in Co Sligo in 1979 – and in doing so targeted and killed two teenage boys and an elderly woman.
McGuinness may be recalling the terrible bloodshed caused by the British Parachute Regiment in Derry on Bloody Sunday 1972 and some months earlier in Ballymurphy in west Belfast. But both the queen and McGuinness over a number of decades have met and been in the company of some very dodgy people. They know the required drill. And, anyway, the duty of army chiefs, serving and former, is to exercise the political will, and for a long time now the British-Irish political consensus was that a carefully arranged meeting between the British queen and the Deputy First Minister would be in the public and political interest. And it will.
And when you think of the recent past, both are taking quite a step. All the choreography must be delicately managed. Just as well that President Michael D Higgins will be on hand at this arts event, so conveniently organised by Co-operation Ireland, to lend his expertise in ensuring a smooth encounter.
And what will they say to each other? “Have you come far, Mr McGuinness?” Perhaps he’ll say, “From war to peace.” And how will the Deputy First Minister address the queen? Your majesty? Ma’am? Or, a nomenclature used by Gerry Adams in the past, Mrs Windsor? Hardly, that would be bad manners. The diplomatic niceties shouldn’t pose a serious hurdle and if McGuinness is in difficulty, perhaps he could be guided by First Minister Peter Robinson, who will also be at the event and who has had frequent meetings with Queen Elizabeth.
The arrangement at the moment is that this will be closed to the public and that the press will be excluded. A Buckingham Palace stills photographer and cameraperson will snap and film the event but the word is that there will be no picture of a handshake; that instead there will be a group shot showing the queen and McGuinness together. That seems rather cowardly and contrary to the spirit of this occasion. One wonders will that situation change in the coming days and, at the very least, if the picture of the handshake will be released. In the lead-up to this event, Sinn Féin made a fuss about the Stormont garden party being held on Wednesday. But that controversy always seemed contrived, because absolutely nobody expected that McGuinness and the queen would have their first engagement together in front of 22,000 people. The fact that it is privately happening under the aegis of Co-operation Ireland, which provides a North-South cover to proceedings, just proves that the British, Irish and Sinn Féin mandarins, and Peter Sheridan – the former senior PSNI officer and now head of Co-operation Ireland – haven’t lost their organisational nous. Those who would like to resurrect a serious conflict will attempt to exploit this meeting for their particular ends. Between now and Wednesday McGuinness will be subjected to heavy criticism from dissident groups, with words like “betrayal” and “sell-out” likely to feature.
It will be a little uncomfortable but Adams and McGuinness and senior Sinn Féin figures are well capable of managing such censure.
Before taking yesterday’s decision, McGuinness said he would be guided by whether meeting the queen would benefit the peace process. Which is fair enough. But he would also have been guided by whether this would benefit Sinn Féin. Perhaps there won’t be great advantage accruing in Northern Ireland but it should help further widen the appeal of Sinn Féin in the South, counterbalancing the dissident denunciation. Wednesday will be another important political milestone and Sinn Féin has prepared its base well for this historic encounter.