I AM amazed at the number of people down here who are, to put it mildly, underwhelmed by that handshake between Martin McGuinness and the Queen of England. They have not been impressed. Some didn’t like it at all. Even one government junior minister called it a cheap political stunt by Sinn Féin. But in their eyes nothing good can come out of Sinn Féin. They believe that anything Sinn Féin does is done only for the good of Sinn Féin.
A lot of these people were also opposed to the peace process. They didn’t like it when John Hume began talking to Gerry Adams all those years ago. They were furious when the then President of Ireland Mary Robinson shook hands with Gerry Adams when she met him in Belfast and they were very annoyed when Adams was given a visa to allow him to travel to the United States.
They find it hard to accept that enormous strides have been made since those first tentative steps were taken towards peace. We have come a long way in the last two decades. The most important thing, of course, is that nobody in Ireland – or at least very few – are being killed today because of their political or religious views.
In the early days of the ceasefire, the IRA told us they would not surrender an ounce of explosives or one bullet. The IRA itself was never going to go away. Gradualy the Republicans moved on and peace came dropping slow. Belfast may still be a divided city but, today, life is far more normal than it had been for generations. People are able to shop, go to the theatre or to the pub without the fear of being blown up or shot on the street.
The handshake was significant but just another step towards normalising relations between the two communities.There is a long way to go yet but every step in the right direction should be encouraged and welcomed rather than dismissed as another cheap gimmick by Sinn Féin.
I don’t know how far Sinn Féin is prepared to go to show Unionists that they are welcome to participate in this new Ireland that former IRA men are trying to create.
We were told at the weekend that the next step for Republicans would be to apologise to all the victims, or the relatives of victims who died during the long years of armed struggle. We don’t know how true this might be but if it is true, it would be a far more significant step than last week’s handshake with Queen Elizabeth.
Republicans have never admitted that they were wrong. They have acknowledged that mistakes were made, but they believe their cause was a just one. So why apologise if you believe right was on your side? However, I am sure a formula of words can be found to suit most sides. If David Cameron was able to apologise for Bloody Sunday, surely former IRA men can apologise for the slaughter at Enniskillen and elsewhere.
To get Republicans to apologise for the whole armed struggle might be a bridge too far. At the same time, the Unionist community might not want anything less. But then there are those in the Unionist community who would want Republicans to go the whole hog: accept the Union Jack rather that the Tricolour as the national flag and God Save The Queen rather than A Soldier’s Song as the national anthem. That definitely would be a bridge too far as it would represent surrender to the British and acceptance of the Union.
Some could argue with justification that the handshake between McGuinness and the Queen should have taken place years ago. Perhaps it should but those things have to be handled carefully. One step at a time.
McGuinness might have been shot by dissident Republicans if this handshake had occurred some years ago. They would have looked on it as a sign of surrender to the British Crown. Now, however, the dissidents look on McGuinness and Adams as people who have gone over completely to the other side. They would not expect McGuinness to spurn the hand of friendship from the British Queen. They might actually secretly welcome it as proof that McGuinness was no longer a Republican and that they and they alone were willing to stand by their Republican principles.
They would also expect that it is only a matter of time before Sinn Féin MPs take their seats in the House of Commons. Perhaps they are right in that. Having moved so far on the road to democracy, it would only be another step for Sinn Féin to end their long tradition of abstention. The Dáil and Stormont were both boycotted by Sinn Féin until recent years. They looked on those two houses of parliament as “partition institutions” and should not be recognised. In time, however, pragmatism overcame principle and Sinn Féin-elected representatives are today happy to take their seats at Stormont and in the Dáil. I imagine, given time, they will also sit in the House of Commons at Westminster.
I cannot see Republicans take seats in the House of Lords but then I cannot see into the future. They have come so far that they may eventually decide to go the whole way. I believe anything is possible in politics. What might be unthinkable one year might be not only acceptable but welcome the following year.
In the past, Fianna Fáil preferred to go into opposition rather than form a coalition government with another party. Fianna Fáil would love to have the luxury of that choice today.
It would have been unthinkable to see Martin McGuinness shake the hand of the Queen of England a few years ago. Politics is all about compromise and being able to do today what could not be done yesterday.
We will always have begrudgers but to paraphrase the immortal words of Brendan Behan in a more polite form, “Begone begrudgers”.