John Hume’s famous line about not being able to eat a flag has always struck me as odd, given that flags aren’t for eating. At the same time I think that we here in the north sometimes attach too much importance to symbols. And symbolic acts.
Take the flag that flutters…I nearly said flutters proudly, but flags don’t have feelings so I’ll just say flutters above Belfast City Hall, above Stormont and half-way up a lot of lamp-posts here in the north. In one sense they matter, since they leave no room for a similar flag reflecting that portion of the population that sees itself as Irish. On the other hand it’s only a bit of cloth, so running it up or running it down or leaving it to rot doesn’t change the people below or the beliefs they hold.
The same goes for symbolic acts. The one that’s obsessing a lot of people at the moment is the possible meeting of Martin McGuinness with Queen Elizabeth and the possible handshake they could exchange. The word at present is that Sinn Féin are a bit iffy about it until they’ve received some quid pro quo – they’ll look for some concession from the unionist side in return for what Gerry Adams calls “a big ask” of republicanism.
Whether or not that’s what they’re doing, I remember when Sinn Féin used to…not complain, but point out that DUP people refused to share eye-contact with them, let alone a hand-shake. As far as I know there still isn’t a photograph of Peter Robinson shaking Martin McGuinness’s hand. Or any other major unionist come to that.
Personally, I don’t think it matters a damn. When communism prevailed in the USSR, Western leaders including QE2 and the President of the US used to meet with its leaders and shake hands. Nobody accused the Royal One or the Prez of having turned communist. It was seen as merely civilized behaviour with those whose ideas one rejected. They shook hands because that was the way people normally act when they meet someone. If I shook hands only with those whose ideas matched mine, my fists would stay in my pockets a lot of the time..
So to come back to Martin McGuinness and the queen. It's not the act of hand-shaking that is significant, it's how people interpret it. Dissident republicans would – if it happens – point to it as another example of Shinner capitulation to British rule in Ireland. So too would die-hard DUPers. But if you think about it, if I or anyone else were to shake hands with the queen, it would occupy at best thirty seconds. There’s nothing about the digit-squeeze that’d preclude me from spending the rest of the day, month, year planning the downfall of British rule here. I don’t say that’s what Martin McGuinness is doing, but I do say there’s nothing in that handshake to prevent such activity. If you’re going to read significance into an act of hand-shaking, you’d be as well to make sure your reading is accurate.