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Hands of History: McGuinness and the Queen

Jon Tonge

147193391 300x178 Hands of History: McGuinness and the QueenThe meeting and handshake between the Queen and Martin McGuinness is the most important act of healing and reconciliation achieved so far in Northern Ireland. McGuinness was one of the leaders of the Provisional IRA, which killed more than 2,000 people during the conflict. That one of those victims was the Queen’s cousin, Lord Mountbatten, gives the handshake particular poignancy.
Issues of healing and dealing with the past have been problematic in the Northern Ireland peace process. From a British perspective, the willingness of the Queen to meet McGuinness is further acknowledgement that the past should remain precisely that – the past – and not allowed to cloud a brighter future.

McGuinness could hardly fail to reciprocate the Queen’s gesture in Dublin last year, when she acknowledged the sacrifices of IRA volunteers of the early C20th and accepted that things might have ‘been done differently’ in respect of British-Irish relations. Reciprocation falls neatly into Sinn Fein’s political project of outreach to the Protestant-Unionist-British tradition. There are also votes in meeting the Queen. It sends out a message to those middle-class voters across Ireland, still prone to judging Sinn Fein by its past, that the party is fully constitutional. This explains why McGuinness has appeared increasingly desperate to get the event filmed. He even labelled resistance to filming – and the Queen will not want the event turned into a Sinn Fein propaganda vehicle – as ‘cowardly’.

Talk of Sinn Fein’s base – accustomed to compromises – as very concerned over this move is overdone. I attended the party’s recent ard fheis in Killarney and there were few murmurs of protest. In any case, Sinn Fein members don’t really do dissent. What might trouble that base far more is if the political outworking of this week’s symbolism is an eventual move towards Sinn Fein’s MPs taking seats at Westminster. A handshake falls short of an Oath of Allegiance. Yet other seemingly fundamental republican principles have been relegated to tactics and, in propitious circumstances, such a move cannot be ruled out.

Dissident republicans will naturally regard the handshake with scorn, a British Monarch merely meeting one of her Crown ministers. Dissidents have long regarded McGuinness with contempt for his ‘sell-outs’; an enmity heartily reciprocated. The desire of dissidents to disrupt the peace process continues to exceed their capacity. 2,000 suspects have been arrested over the last decade. That said, nearly 500 bombings and shootings over the last three years and the killings of two British Army and two Police Service of Northern Ireland officers in the last four years indicate that not quite everyone is signed up to reconciliation. Seismic handshakes marginalise such groups, but their ‘war’ goes on whilst all others make peace.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and author of eight books on Northern Ireland, including Sinn Fein and the SDLP: From Alienation to Participation and The New Northern Irish Politics.

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  • Pacificweather

    Early in her reign the Queen shook hands with Mr Kenyata and now with Mr McGuinness. In NI there are still internal divisions but the symbolism is important to move continually forward.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jame.jameson.5 Jame Jameson

    ‘McGuinness was one of the leaders of the Provisional IRA, which killed more than 2,000 people during the conflict.’ Why did you leave out this bit –
    ‘The Queen is the leader of England, which killed way way waaaaay more than 2,000 Irish people during the last 800 years of oppression’?


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