Hear the hands clap within Sinn Féin after coup by party spin machine

Thu, Jun 28, 2012, 01:00

ANALYSIS:The exasperating prolonging of the ‘will they, won’t they shake hands’ story has irked many in political circles

THE PICTURES looked good, didn’t they? Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth appeared cheerful, smiling and relaxed, she in a suitable light-green outfit and wide-brimmed hat.

Martin McGuinness also seemed composed and welcoming. The handshake was done with the appropriate amount of warmth and human fellow feeling.

It was a good morning – “maidin mhaith”, as was said – for the intertwining relationships on and between these islands, and now we can all move on further.

Sinn Féin milked the issue of the meeting and the handshake for all it was worth, and then some.

That explained how quite a number of politicians on both sides of the Border had their noses out of joint feeling that this was all degenerating into another rolling Sinn Féin propaganda bandwagon.

And there is some truth to that, which we’ll return to, but even for those totally jaded and faded by decades of peace-processory, yesterday was a significant and symbolic day that can’t but require the much abused H-word – historic.

Peter Sheridan, chief executive of Co-operation Ireland, who hosted the reception at the Lyric Theatre in south Belfast, in an earlier life was charged, as a senior PSNI officer, with trying to combat the threat from the IRA. So he had an objective fix on the occasion.

“I don’t think any of us could ever envision that such an event could ever take place,” he said. “In a very relaxed atmosphere what struck me was the ordinariness of the handshake by people who are in no way ordinary.”

What keeps coming to mind is that Martin McGuinness was the leader of an organisation that killed Queen Elizabeth’s cousin and Prince Philip’s uncle, Lord Louis Mountbatten in Mullaghmore in 1979 – at the same time murdering two teenage boys and an elderly woman.

It seemed fitting that one of the honoured guests yesterday was the Belfast poet Michael Longley, whose famous poem Ceasefire also came to mind.

It tells of how the King of Troy, Priam, through conciliatory words and actions, persuaded Achilles to return to him the body of his son Hector whom Achilles killed in battle.

The poem concludes with the two lines: “I get down on my knees and do what must be done/ And kiss Achilles’s hand, the killer of my son.”

There was a sense of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip doing what needed to be done, and being genuine in carrying out that action.

Ahead of that big gesture and outside the Lyric we could hear a visiting American reporter telling his viewers how it would be a “grudging” handshake, but that’s not the way it came across.

Martin McGuinness, too, played his part. He got over the nomenclature problem of how to address the queen by speaking to her initially in Irish, greeting her with a “fáilte romhat” and telling her it was a “maidin mhaith” and offering her “slán agus beannacht” when she was leaving the Lyric, and explaining the meaning of these salutations.

His Irish however did not go so far as addressing her as “Banríon Eilís a Dó”.

McGuinness spoke to her of the appositeness of her remarks in Dublin last year about the need for remembering all of the victims of the conflict, with Queen Elizabeth in turn agreeing: “We must remember all victims.”

What happened yesterday was symbolically important; more poison was taken out of the system.

And it will cause some discomfort for Sinn Féin.

You can imagine dissident republicans devising “sell-out” captions for the posters and murals of that photograph of Queen Elizabeth and McGuinness that they plan to plaster around the island.

But Sinn Féin, with good reason, will be confident that they will gain much more than they will lose from the handshake, particularly in the South where support could extend into more middle-class areas.

Many politicians North and South have been hugely annoyed at the amount of publicity Sinn Féin derived from the exasperating prolonging of the “will they, won’t they shake hands” story.

They will be equally irritated that the Sinn Féin spin machine will be garnering more publicity when McGuinness speaks in Westminster tonight.

Heaven knows what degrees of apoplexy they will suffer when he appears as special guest talking to Miriam O’Callaghan on RTÉ on Saturday night.

But the caravan is moving on. What big symbol peace-process story is left to cover?

From here on it’s hard-slog politics, with those who can work hardest and deliver most likely to gain most.

Which, after yesterday’s drama at the Lyric in Belfast, is where Northern Ireland should be right now.

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