Tell you what. On this sun-filled St Patrick’s Day, let’s look at the Queen of England. Or to be more exact, the suggested meeting between herself and Martin McGuinness. Five things.
1. There’s something faintly hilarious about the northern leader of a party which, for years, people would have chopped off their hand rather than shake hands with; now he’s being asked, courted, demanded – you choose your word – to shake hands. Remember Gay Byrne’s famous refusal to shake the hand of Gerry Adams on his Late Late Show? And now there are people who’ll be miffed if Martin McGuinness doesn’t shake hands with the head of the House of Windsor. Sometimes it’s hard to keep up with the twists of diplomacy and etiquette.
2. Do you shake hands only with people whose political views match yours? I’m putting the finishing touches to a book about three of the major centenaries we now face. In the course of preparing it, I interviewed politicians of every stripe – from flinty republicans to dyed-in-the-wool unionists. In every case I shook hands with them, and they with me. I can’t speak for them but I know I figured it was a civilized thing to do. It didn’t mean I shared their philosophies or indeed that they shared mine. Ditto Queen and Deputy First Minister.
3. There are some who’ll seek to make political hay out of any McG-QE2 meeting. Some will say it shows McGuinness has sold out – that he’s accepted the Queen as his lawful sovereign, and all those years of conflict were all a bit like your man in the ‘Dallas’ soap – all just a bad dream that never really happened. Others will say that it shows nationalists/Catholics in the north – esp the under 45s, if you’re to believe at least one priest – don’t give a monkey’s about a united Ireland. Both of them clearly don’t know Martin McGuinness.
4. Why is McGuinness prepared to do it? Well, only he knows for sure. But my guess is that, like Alex Salmond, he wants to reassure those in the community who might be filled with fears about the future that, as far as acting in a civilized and respectful manner towards the woman they – well, not so much they have chosen, since choosing a monarch has nothing to do with the people – the woman who has been landed on them as their head of state.
5. This is another stage in a long journey that Sinn Fein have taken towards reconciliation with their fellow-Irishmen who are unionists. Their attitude to Irish soldiers who died in British uniform in WW1, their taking of seats at Stormont and the Dail, their sharing of power and its responsibilities – they are determined to remove any unnecessary barrier between them and the unionist community. On Thursday last I was in Berry Street Presbyterian Church. The minister introduced the discussion of the signing of the Covenant – attended by at least as many nationalists/republicans as unionists – and then handed over, in his words, to his ‘good friend Danny Morrison’.
All changed, changed utterly. You can interpret that as a total sell-out of the great mass of republicans of everything they fought for over several decades – killed and were killed, went to prison for years, all the other wounds of conflict – all sold out, the Queen of England acknowledged as their sovereign. Or you can see it as republicans treating in a civilized way someone unionists, for reasons best known to themselves revere. My money is on the second of these two. A final footnote: if republicans are respectful of unionist figure-heads such as the Queen of England, that poses an interesting question. How will unionists treat those things which republicans hold dear and honour?