The handshake and the wider context
TOMORROW’S MEETING between Queen Elizabeth II and Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, is an important symbolic addition to the iconography of reconciliation on this island and between Ireland and Britain. Their handshake, at a private meeting in Belfast organised by Co-operation North and to be attended by President Higgins, deserves the publicity it has attracted, however upsetting Sinn Féin’s political opponents find that to be.
The Northern Ireland conflict has been fought in part over symbols and few are more potent than this welcome encounter between a former commander of the Provisional IRA and the titular head of the British armed forces. Both individuals bring with them personal memories from the conflict – in 1979 in this State, Queen Elizabeth’s octogenarian uncle, Lord Mountbatten, was murdered, along with two children, by the IRA. Mr McGuinness doubtless has his own personal and dark memories.
Following the Belfast Agreement 14 years ago, and the now five-year experience of power sharing between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin, many will say it was past time that this significant gesture was made. Queen Elizabeth’s remarkably successful visit to the Republic last year was a much greater symbol of the normalisation of relations between the two islands and between nationalism and unionism. This meeting in Belfast looks belated in comparison but it signifies as much about the transformation of Sinn Féin as it does about the transformation of relations between the communities within Northern Ireland, and between our two islands and nations. The party is now part and parcel of government in Northern Ireland, supporting the criminal justice system, the police and committed to the principle of consent. Its all-Ireland character is revealed by its strength in Dáil Éireann. While Sinn Féin’s political rhetoric continually stresses preparation for Irish unification, unionists say the union has never been stronger. More will be heard of these arguments as events of 100 years ago are commemorated.
They will be raised in a different way by the unionist campaign launched yesterday in London against Scottish independence. Mr McGuinness showed a notable broadening of horizon recently when he spoke about the implications for Ireland of that political process in Britain. Sinn Féin makes a contribution to politics in this State by bringing these issues continually to public attention. They are often overlooked, especially during the current politics of recession and troika bailout, and should be more fully considered by all the parties committed to closer North-South co-operation and eventual Irish unity, which are decidedly not a Sinn Féin monopoly.
The Belfast Agreement and the associated architecture of North-South and British-Irish co-operation are now fully in place and functioning as planned by the two sovereign governments and the Executive in Northern Ireland. It is a huge achievement, which will be further strengthened by tomorrow’s meeting between Queen Elizabeth and Mr McGuinness.