Queen's visit to Republic could be Sinn Fein's 'Mandela moment'
Published 15/03/2011 | 08:00
The visit of the Queen to the Republic in May will be one of the most significant of her long lifetime. It has the potential to change irreversibly and for the better the relationship between London, Dublin and Belfast.
This is a visit not before time. There is no greater black mark on the Republic than the fact that not until now has it felt sufficiently secure in its own independence to play host to the head of state of its nearest neighbour.
The Irish President, Mary McAleese, has been a shining light amid the darkness of outdated anti-British prejudice which has pervaded the south for too long.
She has paved the way to this moment and when she shakes hands with the Queen in Dublin, it will be the most symbolic and important statement of all that our politics on this island have emerged from the dark ages of conflict.
For unionist and nationalist alike it should serve as an acknowledgment of what we are, where we have come from, what we have fought and died for and what has belatedly begun to bind us together.
We have had Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley agreeing to share power at Stormont. We have had taoiseachs and prime ministers exchanging handshakes and making political contracts ever since the peace process took hold in the early 1990s. None of these encounters are on the same scale as an Irish president welcoming a British monarch to Dublin. The world will be watching. President McAleese has offered Ireland an opportunity it cannot ignore to step up to the mark and show that it is a mature nation within the European Community.
The visit is a test for Sinn Fein just as a visit from the Pope to Northern Ireland will be for some unionists. Are we going to go on forever with the needle stuck at 1916 or 1690?
Or are unionists and nationalists not confident enough in their own respective ideals to show the level of respect which the Queen's and the Pope's visits deserve?
The leadership of Sinn Fein is shifting its feet uneasily over the forthcoming Royal visit and no doubt some unionists will do the same regarding the Pope. Irrespective of such prejudice, the First and deputy First Ministers of Northern Ireland should have no inhibitions.
This is Sinn Fein's Mandela moment, but will its leadership respond as he did when he emerged from prison? In the film Invictus, Nelson Mandela is shown confronting his critics in the African National Congress who opposed his support for South Africa's mainly white rugby team competing in the World Cup.
He argued that his support for the team was to the greater good of his nation and he even appeared at the World Cup final wearing a South Africa green and gold rugby shirt.
Somehow, just as Mandela did, Irish nationalists and republicans have got to rise above their narrow ground. The tide of Anglo-Irish history is turning.
Even if they cannot bring themselves to openly support the Royal visit, they will do nothing for Ireland, north or south, by embarrassingly contriving to disrupt or prevent this monumental moment from taking place.
When the Queen arrives on Irish soil, will there be within Sinn Fein the vision and courage to turn the other cheek as Mandela did with such positive effect in South Africa?
It should not be forgotten that the Queen and the Royal family are as much victims of our conflict as the thousands of others.
The Queen has spent much of her life in personal danger of attack. Some of her family circle - most tragically Lord Mountbatten who was killed at Mullaghmore in County Sligo - have paid the terrible price of terror in Ireland.
The First Minister, Peter Robinson, says he has no issue entering a Catholic church as he did so recently and commendably along with Prince Charles at St Malachy's in Belfast.
It should also go without saying that the leadership of Northern Ireland - the First and deputy First Ministers - are not restricted in their other formal duties of state.
I would like to think the deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland will be there, along with all the other representatives of the Irish people to welcome the Queen.
And I would like to think that when the Pope visits Armagh, or wherever in Northern Ireland next year, whoever is our First Minister will extend the same courtesy.
Then we will truly recognise that political leadership on the island of Ireland has come of age.