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Shaking hands or calm reassurance?

July 3, 2012

So: Martin shook hands with the Queen! What was the moment’s significance?

Two commentators whom I respect have given a reaction to the handshake between Queen Elizabeth and Martin McGuinness over the weekend, and have come to differing conclusions. Malachi O’Doherty, on Radio Scotland’s Newsweek programme, opined that the whole thing was meaningless, as long as peace walls and segregated housing remained in the Six Counties: the people were still divided, the term ‘peace process’ was a kind of placebo to cover over the areas where progress was not being, or could not be, made.

Ian Bell, in the Herald, on the other hand, also took the view that it was fairly meaningless and hypocritical – but, if it meant people were not being killed and explosions had ceased, then it was probably a charade worth going through.

I sat and wondered: what was my reaction?

It’s a cliché to say ‘I grew up with the Troubles’ – but, in a political sense , I did, especially as they started when I was 16 and lasted till my forties.

Imagine my situation: brought up, in Scotland and England, with an awareness of my Irish background, but not as part of any organized Irish community. First visit to Ireland aged 7, but the annual holidays there from the age of 14. Politically aware, to some extent, since JFK’s election campaign, drawn to the coverage of the US Civil Rights Movement, and then conscious of NICRA starting to agitate on housing and voting issues in the Six Counties.

It was, perhaps, inevitable I would be a Republican and that I would support the movement towards a United Ireland. A CND Member with pacifist leanings, my support for ‘armed struggle’ was not an easy fit. Suffice to say I was uncomfortable with the end justifying the means, but there were times when I understood the provenance of the resistance, and other times when it sickened me.

Now, more than 40 years on, I still play head tennis with the question: What was it all for?

Certainly there is more equality in the Six Counties now than there was in the mid 1960s; I think too there is more tolerance on every side – though, to an extent, that has been brought not by conviction, but by a weariness of violence, and a desire for ‘normality’. In simple human terms: not many societies have the endurance to be strongly politically motivated for more than an entire generation, especially when it involves violence and mayhem. Eventually, bread on the table, a decent education and health service, and a chance to offer success to the children, outweighs all other considerations. Both the DUP and Sinn Fein, it seems, have acknowledged this, and much of what they do now, to engage the voters, is predicated on this.

You could say that the winners out of ‘normalisation’, for all the idiosyncracies of these counties, are the people – whose quality of life has improved immeasurably. Neither of the major political parties have gained a victory: Sinn Fein don’t have a united country, and operate within a Stormont administration and the DUP have recognised that it is no longer a ‘Protestant Parliament for a Protestant People’ and have to cooperate with Republicans and the southern government. In return, interestingly, the DUP have replaced the UUU and Sinn Fein the SDLP as the major parties of each community, so there are some political advantages for the former extremists on both sides. That’s what has encouraged progress towards normality.

It’s the sort of stalemate that armed struggles often end in: the combatants grow older, they develop perspective and it becomes apparent that there are other ways forward, and that perhaps some of the original imperatives have changed, or that ‘the people’ have become weary. Even in Ireland’s own history, Michael Collins took this route, as did Eamon De Valera and Clann na Poblachta/Fianna Fail, as did Capt Terence O’Neil. Whilst it is true that the old men start the wars that young men fight, the young men very often end them when they become old! In a strange way, the chuckle brothers, McGuinness and Paisley, ended up with as much in common in their history of struggle as they had that divided them, which perhaps explains their apparent understanding of each other.

My best guess is that, in the fullness of time, when the generations who venerate the graves of Ulster heroes from the Somme and Republican heroes from 1916 are themselves in the grave, within a relatively united Europe, the differences between the 6 and the 26 counties will have lessened to such an extent that, formally or otherwise, the island will be operating as one country. If general public interest in the political process continues to atrophy at the present rate, there won’t be too many people too bothered about under which flag they are operating. In Scotland, where thankfully, independence is still a political rather than violent matter, folk may well remain engaged; in Ireland, where the threat of violence in pursuit of political gain will still haunt, I’m not sure future generations will feel it’s worth risking or getting agitated about.

So – Martin’s handshake with Elizabeth?

Not as significant as Queen Elizabeth’s Dublin visit, where her acknowledgement of Republican dead and Crown Forces’ ill doings, had an enormous impact in terms of reconciliation. Not as significant either as Sinn Fein’s agreement to work within the Stormont system, thereby, per se, recognizing Partition. Nor as significant as the DUP’s agreement to share power with the Shinners.

In a land that has perhaps fed on symbols for too long, it is another symbol; a reassurance that things are going along ok – for both sides. The fact that McGuinness was an IRA Commander or that Queen Elizabeth’s son is Commander in Chief of the Parachute Regiment is noted, but not the defining point of the occasion. Former colonial powers have always made peace with former insurrectionists: in its dealings with Israel, India, Zimbabwe, and many other countries, Britain has proved to be a past master at fitting its diplomacy to the needs of the hour.

The handshake gave some kind of specious reassurance to all but the most marginalized on both sides of what the tabloids like to call ‘the Ulster Divide’. As a Republican, am I incensed that Martin McGuinness shook hands with the Queen of England? Not particularly; politicians shake hands with all manner of folk whose raison d’etre they disagree with. As he said after – he’s still a Republican. Were Ireland a 32 County state, it would have been his position to welcome a visiting head of state, without necessarily endorsing what she stood for or her world view.

For me, the Republican struggle was all about the people, or should have been. It would be as difficult to invite the unionists of the Six Counties to join the currently constituted 26 county state with all its failings as it would be to ask the 26 Counties to accept the North, with all its needs.

When the people come together, there will be unity; in the meantime, Martin and Elizabeth, and their handshake, with all due respect to the media, are pretty meaningless

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