Symbolism alone cannot heal a nation's wounds
We've all been there. You're having a big family event. And it dawns on you... there's no way you can't invite Onslow. Or, alternatively, the invite arrives from people you've barely spoken to in years and can't stand. And despite lying awake late into the night plotting excuses – the dog needs an injection at 6pm on the dot – you just know nothing is going to wash. You have to go.
Who wouldn't want to be a fly on the wall of Buckingham Palace, or Martin McGuinness's roost right now?
And yet the Queen's gracious decision to invite McGuinness to a gala dinner at Windsor Castle in honour of Irish President Michael D Higgins' state visit is to be welcomed. As is the deputy first minister's acceptance. The symbolism is as important as HM's groundbreaking visit to the Republic in 2011 and her handshake with McGuinness in Belfast in 2012 – most significantly that we can move on from the dug-in trenches of history, that – to some extent – we are masters of our own destiny if we have enough courage.
This week's events will deepen the symbolism of two years ago – let's not forget that McGuinness snubbed the official banquet for the Queen held by the Irish government back in 2011.
Inch by inch, as they say ...
And, as with that first visit, we should not forget the personal difficulties involved. Martin McGuinness was a commander in the IRA which murdered the Queen's cousin, Lord Mountbatten, targeted her and her family and murdered her subjects.
For his part, McGuinness undoubtedly must face difficulties with his date with Royalty. He will know that his decision to accept the Queen's hospitality will confirm in dissident eyes his place in the long line of republican sell-outs, bending the knee to the occupying forces, blah, blah, blah.
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On both sides, there is a degree of moral and personal courage which must be acknowledged. This is a significant step towards putting the past behind us. And yet ... many will have painful feelings about all this – and not just the old atavistic ones, either.
For unionists, the very sight of a former IRA chief at Windsor Castle will be a galling one; for orthodox republicans the sight of a Sinn Fein leader fraternising with a member of the British Royal family, let alone the sovereign who claims Northern Ireland as part of her kingdom, will provoke deep unease.
But these are exactly the feelings which have to be diluted.
And there are also those who will feel wary at yet another dose of symbolism, however worthy, however right. At times our peace process seems to be a hall of mirrors – an endless mime show of gestures. We seem to be being force fed a series of pieces of political theatre in some kind of vain hope that 'progress' will trickle down to the masses.
And while our leaders get on famously, what about the rest of us? What about the victims, the grieving relatives from 40 years of the Troubles? On all sides. Where is the political structure really taking cognisance of their feelings? Where are the historical gestures of healing over Enniskillen, Darkley, Greysteel, Loughinisland, McGurk's Bar, Kingsmills? The furore over OTRs was a brief glimpse into the red raw maw of hurt.
For them, watching the diners at Windsor Castle quaffing their way through eight courses, with the chink of fine crystal, and generally telling us that 'it's time to move on' will be a heartbreaking, bewildering sight, not a cause of celebration. And what of other on the ground realities? Instead of symbols, what about some substance? As shown in Larne, swathes of our population are still subject to the rule of paramilitaries. Schools are as segregated as ever. And so indeed – away from BTs 7 & 9 – is our housing. Then there are flags, parades, the naming of parks after terrorists, OTRs – are they not really our big hatreds writ small?
In some ways our much vaunted peace feels more like a fragile truce, with each side clutching ever more tightly to the old shibboleths for comfort, ever more beady-eyed to spot the latest slight to 'our' cause. Meanwhile, life becomes harder in terms of pay, work, jobs, and health.
After 20 years, people are not falling into each other's arms, weeping and coming to terms with the hurt they caused each other. No, the grief has been put into a kind of cold storage. Barely acknowledged. Not dealt with. Ignored.
So, let us quietly nod in approval as yet another important symbolic occasion unfolds at Windsor Castle. And let us recognise that it is movement towards creating a normal society.
But let's not forget that symbolic handshakes and dinners can only get us so far. The rest is down to us.
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