Put her there, Your Majesty
Sometimes an image sums up an historical event better than a thousand words could. Think of Nelson Mandela, donning a Springboks jersey as he congratulated Francois Pienaar on his team’s triumph in the 1995 Rugby World Cup. One hundred years of enmity instantly faded away as South Africa’s black political leader congratulated South Africa’s white sporting hero’s victory in what John Carlin called “the game that made a nation.” Carlin’s magnificent book, Playing the Enemy captured the mood of that moment perfectly yet it can’t match the simple image of the two men standing together. The feeble, stage-managed handshake between Martin McGuinness and Queen Elizabeth II falls far short of this, however.
It all seemed perfectly pleasant, of course. Herself dressed in green, appropriately. Himself smiling and with his arm outstretched. The meeting generally received favourable commentary on both sides of the Irish Sea, and Sinn Féin hasn’t received any backlash from its nationalist base in the North. The Queen’s visit to the Republic last year caught the party off-guard, and it also exposed divisions between Northern and Southern party members, divisions which could prove to be a major hindrance as Sinn Féin seeks to establish itself as a credible alternative to the present coalition.
Sinn Féin has two guiding principles; republicanism and socialism. It seeks to end British rule on this island by establishing a United Ireland, which is of course a goal shared by most political parties in the South. Yet it also wants this new republic to be socialist, in line with the aspirations of such leftist republicans as James Connolly. The current economic crises has brought with it a hunger for change, and many voters are now looking leftwards in search of an alternative. Though the Irish Left has historically been weak compared to its European counterparts, the growing unpopularity of the Labour Party has left a gap on that side of the political and ideological spectrum. With Fianna Fáil tarnished, the Greens extinct and the remaining leftist contenders disorganized and divided, there is a real chance for Sinn Féin to become as powerful in this jurisdiction as it is in the North.
But there’s a catch. The party’s hardcore Republican constituency remembers the IRA’s campaign, and more than a few took an active role in it. Many Sinn Féin voters do not however, and the bloody histories of figures such as Gerry Adams casts a shadow over a party that is still considered toxic by a large percentage of the Irish electorate. The fact that Queen Elizabeth was warmly welcomed during her visit last year shows that the vast majority of Irish people are well disposed towards Britain, and have discarded most of the historical baggage. Sinn Féin’s growing popularity is due to its radical economic program, and not to its radical history. Astute tacticians like McGuinness and Adams understand this, and as a result taking the step of meeting the British monarch-which would have been anathema to the party’s leadership a decade or so ago-was seen to be a desirable step. It would create a new image of the party, not just for the benefit of Northern Unionists but also for Southern voters who are as unconcerned by the British monarch’s presence in Ireland as they are by the British military’s presence in what old-school nationalists might call the ‘stolen six’. At the same time, the new younger generation of Sinn Féin leaders such as Mary Lou McDonald and Pearse Doherty are also being groomed to play their part in the coming ascendancy which the party hopes for.
Of course, what happened in Belfast was a positive thing. Conflict between nations has brought about innumerable wars, each causing uncounted human tragedies-neither McGuinness nor Queen Elizabeth has been untouched by that. He saw British soldiers under her command shooting down Catholic youngsters in his hometown’s streets, and took up arms in response. She lost her dear relative Lord Mountbatten to a savage bombing, carried out by McGuinness’ IRA comrades. That they can greet one another as fellow humans says something positive about how life on our island has changed for the better.
For Sinn Féin, however, this was nothing more than a publicity stunt, one which should fool nobody. A deep animosity towards them still exists, as was shown by the reaction to McGuinness’ presidential campaign last year. People can move on, but memories cannot be erased, and as long as they are led by those who participated in violence they will not be accepted by a majority of Irish voters. Mary Lou McDonald could one day lead Sinn Féin into government in the South; Gerry Adams never will. In order to achieve its full potential Sinn Féin has to extend its hands to McGuinness and Adams, and bid them farewell.
Posted by Darragh Roche, Editor on at 11:02 am.
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