Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

This handshake was for Sinn Fein's slow learners

Queen Elizabeth II shakes hands with Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister and former IRA commander Martin McGuinness watched by First minister Peter Robinson (centre) at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast

The Jubilee crowds have dispersed. The euphoria of cheering and flag-waving is over. The Queen has gone back to her palace. And Martin McGuinness is like a cat with cream on his whiskers.

After decades of doom-laden news, reporters and commentators were drooling last week about how far we had travelled.

The images of a new Northern Ireland - from the royal visit to the Irish Open golf at Royal Portrush - were all positive. If the outside world didn't believe our 'war' was truly over, it surely does now.

The Queen's two days here were intended to offer an opportunity for people to celebrate her 60 years of duty and devotion. We know now that there was much more to it than that.

Buckingham Palace was drawn into a web of political intrigue which was not of the Queen's making, but was deemed necessary for the future of the peace process and, in particular, for Martin McGuinness and Sinn Fein.

The Lyric Theatre encounter between Mr McGuinness and Her Majesty had nothing to do with the Jubilee. It was about finding a satisfactory ending to an awkward and embarrassing problem.

As a consequence, the Queen's visit, as well as celebrating her reign, was also a highly politicised occasion.

A bit of me thinks the Queen should not have been put in that position, but she carried it off with her usual sensitive dignity, while her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, did his diplomatic best to smile through what must have been a deeply difficult encounter with Mr McGuinness.

The handshake was an important move in the right direction, but one of the greatest beneficiaries is a political party, namely Sinn Fein, and that is not what any royal visit should be about.

Sinn Fein has been handed the seal of royal respectability - even though the party refuses to have anything to do with the Queen's parliament, other than to accept the largesse of expenses running to hundreds of thousands of pounds.

While Mr McGuinness was prepared to shake the Queen's hand, his party's west Ulster representatives were noticeably absent from the warm-hearted cross-community events in Enniskillen, including the opening of the new South-West Acute Hospital and the Queen's historic visit to St Michael's Catholic church.

In her historic walk across the street in Enniskillen from the Church of Ireland Cathedral to St Michael's, the Queen reached out to a much wider constituency than that which Sinn Fein represents.

Her gesture was just as significant for the future of community relations on this island as the handshake with Martin McGuinness.

She was also sending a message to Protestants and unionists that if ever Northern Ireland was a cold house for Catholics, it must not be in future. The challenge to unionists is to follow her example. In her visit to Croke Park last year, in her symbolic use of the Irish language and in her meeting with Catholic leaders in Enniskillen, she has offered a hand of respect and friendship which unionists in the new Northern Ireland need to extend across this still-divided community.

We should be thankful that Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness - two of the original architects of Europe's most-ruthless terrorist group - now accept there will never be any going back to threats of violence, or violence itself, to achieve a united Ireland. The handshake at the Lyric Theatre brought a final closure to that strategy.

The tragedy is that it has taken the republican movement so long to see what was blatantly obvious to the great majority of people on this island - not least the former SDLP leader and Nobel peace prize-winner John Hume.

The new Sinn Fein strategy for any eventual Irish unity is really Mr Hume's - that unionists need to be persuaded, rather than terrorised, into any agreement on unification; that uniting people is more important than uniting territory.

Just as the DUP did to the Ulster Unionists, now Sinn Fein is doing to the SDLP - stealing its policies and eventually seizing the middle ground.

The next opinion poll of southern voters may show another seismic increase in Sinn Fein's support at the expense of other parties, such as Fianna Fail.

As for the SDLP in the north, it will need to look to its laurels even more so now.

Some in that party may rue the day the Queen ever shook Martin McGuinness's hand.

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