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Two faces of Sinn Fein: Gerry Kelly joins protest while Martin McGuinness shakes hands with Prince Charles

By Henry McDonald

Published 22/05/2015

Prince Charles and Martin McGuinness shake hands during the Royal visit to St Patrick’s Church yesterday
Prince Charles and Martin McGuinness shake hands during the Royal visit to St Patrick’s Church yesterday
Sinn Fein’s Jennifer McCann (third left), Gerry Kelly (third right) and Paul Maskey (second right) join demonstrators in Belfast

Unless you are a Cossack it is probably not a good idea to try and ride two horses. Because you are more than likely to fall off and at the very least make a fool yourself. Which is something, politically speaking, what Sinn Fein has been up to this week north and south of the border.

On Tuesday there was yet another of those "historic handshakes" between a member of the Royal family and a leading figure from the Provisional republican movement. Cup and saucer in one hand, Prince Charles deftly pressed the flesh of Gerry Adams, both men all smiles inside the hall of the National University of Ireland Galway, the campus built when the former's ancestor Queen Victoria sat on the throne.

No doubt Mr Adams and his strategists thought this was a good idea and the sight of him shaking the hand of the Prince would play well in middle middle class Ireland, which has a quiet fondness for the British Royals. The handshake was undoubtedly in part down to the strategy of detoxifying the Sinn Fein brand in the minds of moderate southern Irish voters, the type of people who were repelled by the IRA's campaign and in particular atrocities such as the Lord Mountbatten murder up the road in Co Sligo back in 1979.

Yet while Mr Adams was glad-handing the British heir to the throne his successor in his old West Belfast seat, Paul Maskey MP, was pictured up in Northern Ireland alongside relatives of those killed in the Ballymurphy Massacre of 1971, in which Prince Charles' own regiment (he is Colonel-in-Chief) fired the fatal shots killing civilians on the estate. The irony of this was not lost on social media where many pointed out the contradiction of one ex-West Belfast MP shaking hands and conversing with the man who will (eventually) be British king, while the current West Belfast MP joined a demonstration protest against this week's special visitor to Ireland and his connections to the British armed forces.

Fast-forward 48 hours to downtown Belfast and yet another contradiction, this time in the same street. Martin McGuinness joined Peter Robinson to meet and greet Prince Charles as he and Camilla visited St Patrick's Church in Donegall Street. For the Deputy First Minister it was the second encounter with the Prince in two days as Mr McGuinness had already met him in a private chinwag alongside Mr Adams in Galway.

Just across the road, meanwhile, stood Sinn Fein comrade and junior minister Gerry Kelly joining nationalists in a protest about Ballymurphy, the Paras and their Colonel-in-Chief. You could almost hear the audible thud of two sets of horses' hooves echoing around Donegall Street at this sight too.

Both scenarios highlight the problem Sinn Fein has in advancing its fortunes north and south of the border. Because just as it seeks to widen its appeal to a southern electorate, many of whom never bought into the narrative of the 'armed struggle' and were horrified over its consequences, the party has to look over its shoulder at the base/core support it emerged from up north. It cannot afford to alienate those such as the people from Ballymurphy demanding justice and truth about a day in August 1971 and yet the more the party conjures up the Troubles past the more its opponents in the Republic will remind voters down below about the IRA link and its legacy.

Of course you can argue that this is just politics and that at the end of the day all politicians in the real world do 180 and 360-degree turns to succeed. The difference here of course is that this was a movement who derided others for the same compromises that they now swallow whole in the interests of national reconciliation and peace-building. Not only that but this is also the organisation whose leaders rose to the top by emphasising over and over again in the pre-peace process phase their inflexibility to calls for an end to the violence that was clearly going nowhere.

And yes, we should be welcoming moves by Messrs McGuinness and Adams to offer the hand of friendship to Prince Charles, the Queen or any member of the Royal family on Irish soil, almost as much as you have to admire the Prince for reciprocating given the role Lord Mountbatten played in shaping him as a young man.

All of that is positive and good for all the people on this island, the overwhelmingly majority of whom want no return to the squalid, futile years of the armed campaign. Yet these same people are not fools, or at least the overwhelming majority of them aren't. They say that if you want to ride two horses then you should join the circus. And the people out there know that this week's double horse-riding exercise was a circus act more to do with clowning around with their intelligence than Cossack-like equine entertainment.

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