Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Windsor trumpet can't drown out Martin McGuinness' haunting past

Irish President Michael D Higgins (right) greets Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness (left) and First Minister Peter Robinson (2nd left) with Queen Elizabeth II during a Northern Ireland-themed reception at Windsor Castle, during the first State visit to the UK by an Irish President.
Irish President Michael D Higgins (right) greets Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness (left) and First Minister Peter Robinson (2nd left) with Queen Elizabeth II during a Northern Ireland-themed reception at Windsor Castle, during the first State visit to the UK by an Irish President. P

The state banquet at Windsor Castle last week was turned into a party political broadcast on behalf of Sinn Fein. Not the Queen, not President Michael D Higgins, but one Martin McGuinness stole the show.

He was everywhere. On the front pages of the national newspapers. Head to head with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight. Interviewed ad nauseum on every radio and TV channel. Even the subject of Matt's biting cartoon on the front page of the Daily Telegraph: "Will sir be wearing his formal evening balaclava tonight?"

While the reciprocal state visit reinforced the bridge of friendship and co-operation between London and Dublin, it did not make the impact nationally, or internationally, of the Queen's presence in the Republic three years ago.

What was needed to be said about the historic change in Anglo-Irish relations she had already said herself solemnly and eloquently in Dublin. All that remained to be done was a bit of rubber-stamping over the royal silver at Windsor Castle.

We knew before President Higgins stepped on to the red carpet at Heathrow that the British and Irish were never closer. Had it not been for the invite extended to the Deputy First Minister it is doubtful if there would have been as much stir as there was.

President Higgins came across as a comforting, grandfatherly figure, the kind of person it would be hard not to like. He displayed a poetical turn of phrase in his speeches and a scholarly command of both the English and Irish language.

If all presidents and national leaders behaved with such unthreatening, heart-warming humility, the world would be a better place.

As it was, President Higgins had to share the stage with the Deputy First Minister, who did not allow his moment in the royal spotlight to be missed. You have to hand it to Martin McGuinness and the Shinners. They don't miss a beat and have an answer for everything.

There he was, playing the part of the "unapologetic Irish republican" at the heart of the British Establishment; wined and dined among the great and the good, the rich and the royals, the very people who once rested uneasily in their beds and looked under their limousines in fear of what he and his ilk might have had in store for them.

There he sat in the City of London at another lavish banquet among bankers and brokers, whose businesses were reduced to ruins in the IRA's Baltic Exchange bombing and at Canary Wharf and who could now shake his hand in the knowledge that no such people would ever come after them again.

The Queen and the President should know that, at the very moment last Tuesday night when their distinguished guests at Windsor Castle were reaching for their coffee and port, many people in Northern Ireland had their attention turned elsewhere – to the revelations of a BBC Spotlight investigation about gun-running from the United States. It was yet another example of how the past embarrasses and threatens the present and the future.

Away from the pomp and circumstance of the royal banquet, the Belfast Telegraph/LucidTalk poll last week painted a very different, disturbing picture showing that two-thirds of our young people believe peace has not been achieved and do not see their future in Northern Ireland.

Yes, Britain and Ireland have never been closer. Yes, everyone involved in last week's state visit can congratulate themselves on cementing relations closer still. But, no. The problem that is Northern Ireland hasn't gone away, you know.

The honeyed words of Windsor are welcome, but they should not obscure the political and social differences which still run frighteningly deep on this side of the Irish Sea.

There are too many blackened pots still strewn around and every now and then the lid comes off another one, as displayed by the Spotlight special last week, and the PSNI scurry away belatedly to find some new answers.

In his white bow-tie and tails, the Deputy First Minister has more than his share of lids to lift from the blackened pots he himself has owned from his youthful days.

The legacy of the past – including that of Martin McGuinness – continues to haunt us all and is not drowned out by the trumpeting fanfare at Windsor Castle.

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