The Commander-in-Chief of the Parachute Regiment was in Belfast yesterday. (You remember the Parachute Regiment – the ones that shot dead fourteen innocent people in Derry in 1972). You may have caught a glimpse of him on TV, being welcomed by Mary Peters and Lord Mayor Naomi Long, who did a nice curtesy before the Commander-in-Chief of the regiment. The royal person then gave the winning rosette to a sheep breeder from Glenarm, who said it was a pleasure to have met the C-in-C. Apparently the prize-winning animal reared up as the royal person presented the award. He also met the top civil servant in the Department of Agriculture . Michelle Gildernew was unavailable, having a prior appointment with a cup of tea and a newspaper. President Mary McAleese is to attend a breakfast hosted by the Department of Agriculture at the show today.
What’s the Parachute Regiment man doing at the show? For that matter, what’s Mary McAleese doing there? Well, it’s meant to reassure all sides. The Parachute Regiment C-in-C’s presence tells unionists – and there are a lot of them in the Ulster Farmers’ Union – that the link remains, the Royal Family loves them, no need to be afraid. The Mary McAleese visit is intended to reassure nationalists that things have moved on, there’s a sort of parity, in this case of heads of state, and although it’s not here yet, the holy grail of a re-united Ireland is on its way.
You could argue that such things are window-dressing: what matters is that this corner of Ireland is ruled from London, and that nothing will change until a majority in the North want it changed, and there’s no sign that this will happen in the foreseeable future. It’s a convincing argument, and essentially that which dissident republicans make. But consider this: if, thirty years ago, Ian Paisley had been told that the Irish president would be guest of honour at Balmoral Show, that a former prominent IRA leader would be Deputy First Minister and voted most popular politician in the statelet, and that if you drove from the six counties into the twenty-six or vice versa, you wouldn’t see a sign or a poster of any kind to tell you you’d left one jurisdiction and arrived at another – would the Big Man not have fallen to the ground, twitching? And when he recovered, would he not have led a massive entourage to Belfast City Hall to denounce this sell-out?
Today, all that is accepted, and the cavalcade of protest has taken an electoral form and instead sent the leader of the DUP packing. It may all be window-dressing, a massive attempt to get nationalists to accept the continuation of British rule here. But it might also be a series of straws in the wind, showing that we’re on a slow drift to British withdrawal from here. Certainly that’s what an awful lot of unionists, deep in their gut, believe.