The handshake in which hope and history rhymed with realism
OPINION:It suited Queen Elizabeth and Martin McGuinness to disguise pragmatism as principle, writes MAUREEN DOWD
IN THE HBO movie Game Change, about the 2008 US presidential campaign, John McCain’s strategist Steve Schmidt was appalled when he realised that the Republicans’ vice-presidential pick thought Queen Elizabeth, rather than the prime minister, was running the show in Britain. But with David Cameron growing smaller and the queen growing larger, Sarah Palin now seems prescient.
In leading a reconciliation with Ireland, reaching a white-gloved hand across the bloodstained tide, the queen has restored a lustre dimmed by her 1992 “annus horribilis” and her insensitivity after the death of Princess Diana.
Her elevation to Ireland’s Prodigal Mother began last year when Liz, as the Daily Star calls her, arrived for a four-day visit to the Republic – the first by a British monarch in a century – wearing an emerald green suit, surrounded by ladies-in-waiting not reading Fifty Shades of Grey but wearing 40 shades of green.
The Irish immediately understood that the queen meant business. In this island of myth, superstition and symbol, where the past is always present, she urged both sides “to bow to the past but not be bound by it”. The mood was tentative at first but the ice broke when the monarch bowed her head at the Garden of Remembrance, the sacred ground for Irish patriots who died battling for independence; spoke some Irish; and visited Croke Park, the site of the 1920 Bloody Sunday, when 14 Irish civilians died after British forces opened fire on them. By the end of that visit, some Irish were waving Union Jacks and fondly calling her Betty on Twitter.
The skunk at the emotional garden party was Sinn Féin, which misread the national mood and maintained a sullen distance from the queen. (Sinn Féin lived up to its name, “We ourselves”.) Party president Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister for Northern Ireland, both former capos in the IRA, soon realised they had missed an opportunity to milk an opportunity.
After all, as one leading Irish journalist told me, “These are guys who would take the eye out of your head and say you’d look better without it.” They were also eager to exploit the economic recession, which has helped their poll numbers spike in the Republic, and realised they had misplayed the queen’s visit and needed to assuage their new, more moderate supporters.
So when the queen, the commander in chief of the British armed forces, visited Northern Ireland last week as part of her diamond jubilee celebrations, McGuinness, the former IRA commander, was ready to embrace this woman he had spent his life fighting, first violently and then politically.