Sinn Féin still finding it hard to shake hand of British monarch

Sat, Apr 28, 2012, 01:00

Despite its concessions over the years, the party recoils from meeting the Queen, writes DONALD CLARKE

IN RECENT days Sinn Féin has inadvertently buoyed up two female avatars of the British establishment. What was the worst insult Gerry Adams could drag out when denouncing supporters of the EU fiscal treaty? They weren’t quislings, class traitors or running dogs. They were “Thatcherites”.

Enda Kenny is now a different fellow to me. I imagine him swilling champagne to the Pet Shop Boys while bellowing into a mobile phone the size of a fridge freezer. More than two decades have passed since Margaret Thatcher’s defenestration, but she remains the Rolls Royce of right-wing hate figures.

Meanwhile, up in Belfast, Niall Ó Donnghaile, the city’s lord mayor, was paying accidental homage to an exact contemporary of the former prime minister.

The Sinn Féin member – the youngest person to date to hold the mayoral post – has announced that he will be standing down early in order to avoid being in charge during Queen Elizabeth’s diamond jubilee celebrations. It looks as if Ó Donnghaile is doing everything possible to avoid a potential meeting with the monarch.

With Jesuitical canniness, the Sinn Féin spinmasters managed to argue that, rather than indicating any sort of snub, the move was taken to “accommodate” unionist politicians.

You can follow the logic. Sinn Féin sees Ó Donnghaile as the mature airline passenger who, upon finding himself seated next to Justin Bieber, offers to swap places with the screaming teenybopper on the other side of the aisle.

Mr Adams’s aside need not delay us too long. You could argue that – in the same way that no punk rock recorded after 1977 deserves the name – “Thatcherism” loses its meaning when applied to events in the current century. The manufacturing industries of northern England have already been wound down. The unions have been castrated. The train tracks have all been sold to barrow boys. Let’s just call it neoliberal economics.

That ruthless doctrine – as targeted in its effects as was Agent Orange – no longer belongs to any single despot.

Still, you can see what Adams was up to. Thatcher continues to stir up a near-atavistic fury in voters of a certain generation.

If you came of age in the 1980s – and dress to the left – the Grantham annihilator will long ago have taken on the quality of a mythical ogre.

Adams’s comments suggest that something toothily awful is planning to emerge from beneath the darkest bridge.

The parallel will do his cause no harm.

The situation as regards the queen is more interesting. Republicans continue to be faintly obsessed with the royal family. It’s a weird state of affairs.

Over the last 40 years, leaders of the movement have met right- wing cabinet ministers in suburban safe houses. They have made peace with loyalist psychopaths. If you were searching for a key image of the peace process, you might single out that photograph of Martin McGuinness giggling manically beside an equally hysterical Ian Paisley.

The movement has, moreover, made genuine concessions on its path to partial power in Northern Ireland. By signing up to the Belfast Agreement, Sinn Féin finally allowed the statelet a degree of grudging legitimacy. It played along with the faintly preposterous pantomime that was “decommissioning”.

A meeting with the queen though remains, for many Sinn Féin officials, a step too far. Any mention of (let’s annoy them) Her Majesty triggers a slew of ancient jokes in republican quarters. They just love to call her Mrs Windsor (Mrs Mountbatten, surely) and talk up her family’s German origins (true enough).

What would they do without her? Here’s the point. The movement is quite prepared to give way on matters of policy. Its leaders will talk to – indeed, on occasion, make friends with – politicians and security operatives who have waged undeclared war on the nationalist community – but many remain reluctant to meet a figure whose role is entirely symbolic.

The republican movement thus finds itself making a powerful argument for the continuing potency of monarchy.

It hardly needs to be said that, despite what you might read on the lavatory doors of west Belfast pubs, no issue is being taken with the current occupant of the throne.

If the United Kingdom was a nation of pig worshippers then Lord Porker, the ninth Holy Hog, would remain just as troubling a figure to Sinn Féin as is that lady in the yellow hat. The sense remains that to shake hands with the monarch is to shake hands with the entire imperial project. Paisley merely has to answer for his own sins.

Yet we hear things may change soon. Last month, McGuinness allowed it to be inferred that he just might – is this language sufficiently guarded? – meet Queen Elizabeth during any visit to Northern Ireland for the jubilee.

We trust he won’t spontaneously combust when his republican flesh brushes the royal sleeve.

It really is a different world to the one in which we grew up. Now, if we could just get Paisley to have lunch with the Pope . . .

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