God but we Irish are a simple lot. A pebble gets tossed in our pond and we act as though it’s the mother of all tsunamis. Settle the head, people. Breathe deep. Stop screeching and ask the one question worth asking.
But first, a few points.
1. Gerry Adams said meeting the queen would be a big ask for republicans.
2. Gerry Adams said the meeting would be very, very significant.
3. There are yells of indignation at the decision from some in the republican community.
4. There are mocking comments from some in the unionist community.
5. Hardly anybody – unionist or republican – says it’s insignificant.
But before deciding if the meeting/handshake between Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and Martin McGuinness is a Good or a Bad Thing, there’s another question MUST be answered: what does the meeting/handshake mean? What is its significance?
It could mean “You were my enemy, now you’re my friend. Shake”. We used to end quarrels as schoolboys that way.
It could mean “I want to do business with you, and since business people normally shake hands when they meet, I’m shaking yours”. That’s what people do when they’re doing business. (See Richard Nixon above.)
It could mean “We in Sinn Féin used to give out about people in the DUP not shaking hands with us (some still don’t), so it’d be a bit absurd for us not to shake EAMSCG’s hand”.
It could mean “I am Deputy First Minister for all the people in the north of Ireland and I’m shaking hands with the unionist people I represent in mind”.
It could mean “I was your enemy but now I’m your humble subject. Please forgive me – I was wrong, so wrong”.
You see what I’m getting at, I expect. McGuinness’s move is a mirror from which you can take any meaning you decide to attribute to it. In itself, shaking hands is simply pressing flesh.
But Gerry Adams says it’s more than that – it’s “very, very significant”. I don’t agree – or at least not fully. If it’s very significant that’s because people choose to give it significance. When the queen visited the south, most of the people there appeared to think it was terribly significant. Some said they were deeply moved when she laid a wreath and bowed her head at the memorial to those killed by the British. I found it neither moving nor significant, because no one yet has told me what it means, just as virtually no one has come near telling me what the coming handshake means.
So here’s my take.
Sinn Féin are seen as having missed the boat last year when EAMSCG visited the south and they didn’t meet her. Now they see their mistake and are busy catching up. Could be. Although it also could be that they held off because their meeting would have been lost in the welter of gasping southern emotion. This way, they’ve turned the meeting into a one-on-one and full attention, a big spotlight is given to their action.
Who will benefit from this meeting? Well I’d say Sinn Féin hope they’ll benefit. As my old stablemate in the VO, Brian Feeney, pointed out yesterday, this gesture is aimed at the middle classes in the south, to reassure them that Sinn Féin is safe, because that’s the meaning the middle classes will probably take from this. And having reassured them, Sinn Féin hopes they’ll vote for them. The party knows this will prompt howls of rage from the unreconstructed fringe of republicanism, but then if Martin McGuinness carried a banner saying “Lizzie Go Home!” they’d still have howled their contempt. So electorally, they’re a lost cause. What matters to Sinn Féin is making further electoral inroads in the south, and probably the north while they’re at it, and they reckon this will do the trick. Some may fall off the Sinn Féin campaign wagon at one end, but more, they hope, will join it at the other. In short, Sinn Féin see the meaning the middle classes will attach to this action and they act accordingly.
Cynical? An abandonment of principle? If it is, you’d better include Michael Collins in your condemnation. When he was running his ruthless campaign against the British and was the most wanted man in Ireland, Collins used to ride his bicycle around Dublin. And when he encountered British soldiers, he’d chat amiably and often give out about the inconvenience caused by these damned murderous republicans. Cynical? An abandonment of principle? Only if you’re very, very simple.