The Handshake was belated but not historic


McGuinness’s meeting with queen represented a further step in Sinn Féin’s rebranding project

FORGIVE ME please if I rain on this national parade, The Handshake-fest. I know, I know, we do need uplifting moments to pull us out of the torpor, the national gloom, into which we have all sunk.

The Irish soccer team miserably failed to step up to the plate, and so, not surprisingly, we embrace with an almost embarrassing enthusiasm the next “moment of history” to come along.

The trouble is that the word “historic”, just like “iconic”, has been so debased by overuse that the coinage is worth as little as a drachma. It becomes meaningless. Everything is historic by this yardstick, and it becomes impossible to describe those events and handshakes that really are gamechangers or crossroads moments.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not to say that The Handshake was not a “good thing”. It was. Belatedly, 14 years after the genuinely “historic” Belfast Agreement was signed, marking not only Sinn Féin’s renunciation of coercion as a means of uniting Ireland but also, crucially, a new set of relationships on and between these islands, the party takes another incremental step down that road. Masters at PR and branding, Sinn Féin dresses The Handshake up as a breakthrough and statesmanship of a high order. “Historic” because Sinn Féin says it is. I don’t think so.

The Handshake acquires major significance only if we accept that somehow Martin McGuinness represents through his act the spirit of the Irish nation, or even of Irish nationalism. That he speaks for us more truly than, say President Michael D Higgins, for whom the same handshake is a matter of course, is barely worth commenting on. Or that The Handshake is a great symbolic moment of reconciliation between peoples, perhaps like that genuinely represented by the queen’s visit to Ireland last year.

Instead of being what it is in reality: an attempt by a minority current of nationalism to shake off its still-clinging violent past and a branding of itself both as nationalism’s embodiment and as a “respectable” potential party of government.

Oh yes, and a “reaching out” to unionism, which is still, unsurprisingly, unconvinced.

In this it is ably assisted by a compliant, uncritical press and punditocracy and by a British establishment only delighted to promote the idea of an important, healing, uniting monarchy.

It is the inevitable expression of a peace process culture that privileges Sinn Féin above all parties, wrapping the supposedly tender plant of its new constitutionalism in cotton wool, as if it was at any moment ready to revert to its bad old ways.

Yet do we really believe that if The Handshake had not happened this week the well-entrenched political dynamic in the North would have been altered by one iota?

“An important symbolic addition to the iconography of reconciliation on this island and between Ireland and Britain,” this paper’s leader suggested.

“Ho, hum,” as former editor Douglas Gageby used to say to express scepticism.

A trawl through websites offering a tour of great handshakes of our times leading up to Wednesday’s event (BBC, CNN, Real Clear Politics) came up with notably similar lists: Hitler-Chamberlain (1938); Stalin-Churchill-Truman (1945); Kennedy-Khrushchev (1961); Nixon-Mao (1972); Begin-Sadat (1978); De Klerk-Mandela (1990); Reagan-Gorbachev (1995); Rabin-Arafat (1991); Mugabe-Tsvangirai (2008).

It’s difficult to argue with the “historic” status of any of them, except perhaps the last whose promise has hardly been fulfilled, but what they share above all is that they represented landmark turning points, moments marking a fundamental shift in the politics of great conflicts, for good or ill.

That McGuinness-Queen Elizabeth (2012) should be included in such a list, even as a more modest “non-global” but Irish “historic” occasion, strikes me as reflecting a strange perspective.

Will it even merit a chapter in the “Definitive History of the Irish Peace Process” when Lord Bew or my colleague Deaglán de Bréadún come to write it? A page? A footnote, perhaps?

A short digression: there is nothing like a bit of pseudoscience to add pseudogravitas to a debate, and in this context I am struck by the 2010 research of one Prof Geoffrey Beattie of the University of Manchester and his elegant formula for the “perfect handshake” (PH): PH = square root (e2 + ve2)(d2) + (cg + dr)2 + Pi2 + (vi + t + te)2 + 2

The 12 variables, expressed in terms of strength or appropriateness from one to five, include, among others, eye contact (e), verbal greeting (ve), strength and vigour (s,vi), the hand’s dryness, texture, position (dr, te, p), and duration (du). The quality and genuineness of the smile (du) is also assessed, the “Duchenne smile” – smiling in eyes and mouth, plus symmetry on both sides of face, and slower offset.

Unfortunately applying this exhaustive technique to McGuinness-Queen (2102) is not possible because of the former’s insistence on doing it all behind closed doors. From the photographs, however, it is possible to see the broad, maybe forced smiles, direct eye contact, gloved half-grip, and limited bilingual verbal exchange, and to conclude, with a small margin of “scientific” error, that it was a “good”, not “perfect”, handshake.

Not “historic”.

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