So was Donald Trump’s handshake yesterday with Kim Jong Un significant? I’m not talking about any agreement they struck, just the handshake. The answer is yes. Because when people shake hands, they say essentially that they’re prepared to aside past disagreements and will work to conduct future relationships in a civilized way.
Think of Gerry Kelly and Carál Ní Chuilín shaking hands with Prince Charles yesterday. It’s both sides saying they are prepared to move on, despite past animosity and aggression. Think of Leo Varadkar shaking hands with the head of the Orange Order. Think of Mary Robinson shaking hands with Gerry Adams. Think of Martin McGuinness shaking hands with Queen Elizabeth.
Hand-shaking doesn’t have to matter. Most of us have been introduced to some pretty obnoxious people, and before and after the handshake they went on being obnoxious. But at worst the handshake opens the opportunity to work together in a respectful, even friendly way.
Unionist leaders have shaken hands with republicans. I distinctly remember Arlene Foster shaking hands with Martin McGuinness. The possibility was there of working together, building something of mutual benefit. You could say that shaking hands breaks the ice; if it isn’t followed with deeds, the ice will freeze over thicker than ever. And in Arlene’s case, the opportunity was lost.
So let’s name some prominent unionist politicians, and ask if you’ve seen them shake hands with republicans. Gregory Campbell? Nigel Dodds? Nelson McCausland? You can probably add to the list yourself. To what degree this non-handshaking indicates a personal animosity, or simply a fear they may suffer electorally, is not clear. Both interpretations are pretty depressing.
If they were given permission by their party to speak to the media, it’d be interesting to hear them defend their refusal to make this simplest and most positive of gestures.