Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

One handshake shouldn't overshadow Queen's tour

Royal rumpus: The Queen is greeted by Chelsea pensioners yesterday while Martin McGuinness (below) may shake the monarch’s hand

The Queen is centre-stage - and rightly so on this special Jubilee Bank Holiday.

I witnessed at first hand her spectacular journey down the Thames yesterday and the undiluted respect and allegiance towards her from the millions who lined the river banks and who have thronged the streets of London this weekend to catch a passing glimpse.

What is it about this small, elderly woman who continues to attract such loyalty from so many people in an age when the authority of Church and state is under so much pressure around the world and very close to home?

The pomp and ceremony of the monarchy is an anachronism, bearing no relation to today's egalitarian society, yet the British public clearly love it.

A striking feature of the crowds in London on this Jubilee holiday is the fact that they represent such a broad spectrum of Britain's multiracial society.

The Queen has a personal popularity that no political leader can match, although - as ever - opinions remain divided in Northern Ireland.

To the unionist community, she remains that constant constitutional rock upon which their sense of Britishness is built.

No matter how stressed and strained unionists have felt towards Westminster governments, the Queen has been there as a reassuring image of the UK's unity.

It must be hoped that the cordial welcome for the Queen in the Republic last year has made a positive impact on cross-community relations in Northern Ireland.

Ireland was always a challenge, given the legacy of Anglo-Irish history, but the visit in 2011 changed attitudes utterly.

That is as it should be between two of Europe's closest neighbours.

The inter-mingling of British and Irish traditions across these islands is all to the good after so many centuries of enmity.

No one is asking for nationalists and republicans to cast aside their strong convictions, but we do live on an island together, not solely Irish, or British, but a unique mixture of both.

Will he or won't he? The speculation rumbles on about whether or not the deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland can bring it upon himself to shake hands with the Queen.

The prospect has taken on undue importance, in part because the Sinn Fein publicity machine has an unequalled ability to make political capital out of almost anything.

However, the Jubilee tour of Northern Ireland should not be about politics, but a community celebration enabling people across the UK to show their appreciation for the Queen's unstinting duty over 60 years.

As deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness represents the people of Northern Ireland in his public duties, which include welcoming important figures. He himself has acknowledged that he interprets his role in this way.

Compared to other visiting dignitaries, the Queen is in a class of her own for a whole variety of reasons.

A majority of people in Northern Ireland wish to belong to the UK, of which she is head of state.

She is one of the most respected and famous women on the planet.

She has also extended a hand of friendship to the people of this island as no British monarch as done in our lifetimes.

However, there remains a world of difference between shaking hands with Mary McAleese and with Martin McGuinness.

The latter's hidden past still haunts the politics of Northern Ireland - so much so that he has yet to be seen in public shaking hands with the First Minister, Peter Robinson.

As Mr Robinson noted last week, the Queen is entitled to feelings also, not least after the terrible price which IRA violence exacted from within her own family circle, through the murder of Lord Mountbatten and the constant threat to the lives of other royals throughout the Troubles.

All that said, we do need to move on. It would be wrong for Sinn Fein to allow this visit to pass without some acknowledgement of the Queen's presence.

It would also be wrong to allow any such acknowledgement to overshadow the real significance of the Diamond Jubilee.

I hope that, at some point, the Queen and Sinn Fein - either through the deputy First Minister, or others - do interact.

But if they do, perhaps it would be better for all concerned that the occasion was low-key.

That, in itself, would be quite sufficient for now, given the memories and the sensitivities which still haunt so many to this day.

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