| 12.8°C Belfast

Victims post for ex-prisoner could be a clever diversion

Are some of those who were once held at Her Majesty's pleasure about to smooth the pathway between Martin McGuinness and her Majesty? The will-he/won't-he speculation is building again with the Royal visit to Belfast and Enniskillen less than two weeks away.

On the surface, it appears the mood has been darkening between Sinn Fein and unionists regarding the Queen and the possibility of THAT handshake.

The former's complaints about the organisation of the Jubilee party, the hints from inside Sinn Fein that there is internal opposition to the meeting and the warnings from unionist politicians that snubbing Her Majesty would send a negative message to the entire pro-union community, has created the impression that the Royal visit is turning into a political battlefield.

In the midst of this souring atmosphere comes news that Sinn Fein has appointed yet another ex prisoner to a ministerial position. Jennifer McCann's elevation to junior minister at Stormont has unnerved a lot of unionists, especially given that her portfolio includes the issue of how to look after the victims of the Troubles.

To opponents of powersharing such as TUV leader Jim Allister, her promotion represents the "depravity of Stormont political arrangements." After all, for Allister and for others, Jennifer McCann was a perpetrator rather than victim. She was sentenced back in the early 1980s for her role in the attempted murder of a policeman.

In her defence, McCann has pointed out that she is an elected MLA for West Belfast and has a mandate from the electorate.

She also stresses her record in helping the victims of state violence, but vows to work with all victims, presumably including those who suffered at the hands of the organisation she used to belong to - the Provisional IRA.

Allister certainly landed a few blows on the DUP over this latest ministerial appointment. The TUV leader pointed to the fact the DUP appeared to sanction McCann's promotion in the same week that it was advocating new harsher sentences for the murder of serving officers in the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

Perhaps, however, there is a benign interpretation to this ministerial decision which might be more than just a coincidence. The Sinn Fein base may be slightly restless over the prospect of a figure as senior as Martin McGuinness pressing the flesh with the Queen. (Although it has to be emphasised that reports of dissent within Sinn Fein are often grossly exaggerated.)

The elevation of someone like Jennifer McCann with her so-called 'war record' and her links via the Twinbrook area with Bobby Sands (despite the fact that Sands' own family have long distanced themselves from Sinn Fein) represents a significant nod to the grassroots.

Upsetting Jim Allister and a few voices in the UUP certainly deflects attention from any furore over Martin McGuinness shaking hands with a royal. It may even quieten any internal rumblings there are about that historic meeting.

Is it too Machiavellian to suspect that there may even be some of that old peace process choreography going on here?

Ironically, if something similar had happened south of the border there might have been even more of a row.

During last autumn's presidential campaign, Martin McGuinness lost considerable ground, particularly in 'Middle Ireland', after being confronted on the election trail by the son of an Irish soldier who the IRA had shot dead in the 1980s.

Appointing someone with a jail record in the Republic would have retired gardai denouncing Sinn Fein in their newspaper columns and victims organisations saying that such a person would not be fit to deal with those they represent.

As is always the case with ongoing partition, what's good enough for the morally complex polity north of the border just isn't good enough for the majority in the south.