It’s a safe bet that the appearance of Máirtin Ó Muilleoir , Belfast’s Lord Mayor, at the wreath-laying ceremonies this year will have taken the breath of many republicans away. It’ll also have given ammunition to those who say that Sinn Féin have sold out. Keep in mind: Remembrance ceremonies honour all British armed forces who have given their lives down the years. To say that the reputation of the British Army in Belfast over the past few decades has not been a good one would be an understatement.
But Sinn Féin have committed themselves to reconciliation between Irish people of every stripe here in the north. Actions like that of the Lord Mayor put flesh on the bones of that commitment. The big question now is, what reciprocal moves will we see from unionism?
There are two possibilities. One is that unionists will show respect for republican ceremonies of commemoration and for the flags and emblems associated with such commemoration. In short, they will meet generosity with generosity. The second possibility is that they will say “We’re glad you’ve come to your senses as subjects in the United Kingdom”, then sit back and wait for the next republican concession.
In either case, Sinn Féin have very firmly volleyed the ball into the unionist court. We’ll just have to wait and see how they respond. If the response is positive, we will have seen real progress in reconciliation between former enemies. If the response is negative, it’ll be hard for Sinn Féin to keep on giving with nothing coming back. In fact there are some who say that has happened already.
And no, Virginia, Máirtin Ó Muilleoir's appearance at the cenotaph ceremonies cannot be seen as a reciprocal gesture to Queen Elizabeth’s bowed head at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin. The clue is in the Dublin bit - she wasn’t doing any head-bowing at Milltown cemetery or at the grave of Bobby Sands. In contrast, the Lord Mayor’s appearance was in Belfast, a place where the British army was responsible for some terrible deeds, including the deliberate killing of men, women and children.