Republicans move from clenched fist to open handshake
YOU DON’T initiate a handshake with the British monarch. You wait for her to make the first move. And you don’t touch Queen Elizabeth without her permission.These are the niceties of British-Irish relations that Sinn Féin must become familiar with, following yesterday’s historic events in Belfast.
All is changed, changed utterly, and the Provisional republicans have irrevocably gone from the clenched fist to the open hand.
The Lyric Theatre in leafy south Belfast was a suitable location for this much-heralded exercise in civility between the commander-in-chief of the British armed forces and the former poster-boy of the IRA.
The news media were kept at a good distance from Ridgway Street where the Lyric is located. It is indeed a rare occasion when a theatre audience are told they must stay away.
In the end, Queen Elizabeth and Martin McGuinness shook hands not once, but twice. The first was in a private room, unseen by most of the other invited guests at the Lyric.
Perhaps taking his cue from the queen’s cúpla focal at Dublin Castle last year, he greeted her with the words, “fáilte romhat”: you’re welcome.
No title was used, but when he turned to greet President Michael D Higgins, he uttered a more generous, “céad míle fáilte” (a hundred thousand welcomes) and added, “a Uachtaráin” (Mr President).
Could this be the beginning of a beautiful friendship between Derry and Buckingham Palace, like that famous moment at the end of the film, Casablanca? Will the British monarch and the Deputy First Minister now start exchanging text messages on a regular basis? Probably not: McGuinness likes to talk and he may have blown it by delivering a homily to the queen praising her visit south of the Border last year and stressing the importance of leadership in building peace.
Then, on the way out, there was a further handshake . The queen smiled and McGuinness, we are told, said “slán agus beannacht” (goodbye and a blessing upon you).
A woman who did not wish to be named was watching the proceedings from across the street. She arranged to stay overnight in her daughter’s house so she could see the whole thing.
But she wasn’t interested in the former IRA commander from Derry: “I love the queen, I really do, she is such a lady.” She shrugged when questioned about the encounter between the British royal and the Irish republican: “A handshake is a handshake.”
Queen Elizabeth has a sense of occasion: she wore powder blue in Enniskillen on Tuesday but yesterday it was lime green with, as a gesture to the artistic community, a quill in her hat. McGuinness wore a green tie.
The Duke of Edinburgh can always be relied on for a laugh, and he commented on the size of the scones at the reception. “Who eats those?” he quipped.
Given that the IRA killed his uncle, Lord Mountbatten (who was also the queen’s cousin) there was speculation he might not shake hands with McGuinness, but he did.
At one point, the Deputy First Minister circumvented President Higgins and made his way closer to Prince Philip as though wishing to engage in conversation.
However, the prince moved on smartly to join the queen and that was the end of that. Perhaps Lord Louis was watching.
A set of portraits by painter Colin Davidson was on show, along with some of the real-life subjects. Classical pianist Barry Douglas asked the queen: “Which is better, the real me or the painting?” The monarch replied diplomatically: “I don’t know, what do you think?”
Once portrayed in a TV documentary as Britain’s most dangerous man, McGuinness insisted on his way out that “I’m still a republican”, but, reflecting the new atmosphere, he added that the meeting with the queen was “very nice”.