In a hugely symbolic moment on 27 June, during a royal visit to Northern Ireland to mark her jubilee, the former commander of the IRA shook hands with the Queen.
The man who commanded the force responsible for, amongst other things, the death of the Queen’s cousin Lord Mountbatten, exchanged a handshake with the woman whose armed forces murdered 14 innocent civil rights marchers in his hometown of Derry. This was, all proportions guarded, a real life instance of David Low’s famous cartoon “Rendezvous” in which Hitler (“the bloody assassin of the workers”) greets Stalin as “the scum of the earth”.
The response of the press, in Britain, Ireland and internationally, was very positive.
The Guardian thought “it underlined how far we have come since the Troubles”. The Mirror contained an unusually calm and rational article from Tony Parsons who described it as “the end of something — the decades of hatred, loathing and bloodshed” as well as “the beginning of something, too — when the raw wounds of the past can perhaps begin to heal”.
The Belfast Telegraph, traditionally a Unionist paper, hailed the handshake as “bridging a gulf that spanned centuries”. The southern Irish press was unreservedly impressed. The New York Times called it “a remarkable sign of reconciliation for both figures”.
The working-class socialist response to this would seem to be fairly straightforward. McGuinness claims still to be a republican in both important senses of the word. As a “capital R” Republican he appeared to make peace with the highest symbol of British rule while her state and government continue to “occupy” the northern part of Ireland and deny his people self-determination.
Even more objectionable is his apparent suspension of “lower case” republicanism — the rejection of rule by hereditary, unelected privilege. Contempt for such an institution should be taken for granted by even the mildest democrat.
Didn’t McGuinness, by shaking the Queen’s hand, acknowledge both her right to rule and her government’s sway in Ireland?
A glance at the fiercest critics of this historic handshake is a reminder that things are more complicated.
Before the meeting the Daily Mail advised the Queen to burn her gloves after carrying out her “distasteful duty”. The Sun’s front page headline declared “We don’t blame you for wearing gloves M’am”. The Times cartoonist providing an image of the Queen putting on four pairs of gloves before shaking the bloodstained hand of McGuinness.
The idea that there might be plenty of blood on the monarch’s hands too didn’t occur to any of them.
The Daily Mail was the one paper that didn’t deem the occasion to be worth a front page story. Inside, though, they brought us arch-militarist Max Hastings under the headline “I’m sorry, even in the name of peace, it was wrong to shake his blood-soaked hand”.
Hunting for evidence that McGuinness, the deputy prime minister and latter-day conciliator, remained “a fanatic”, Hastings alighted on his principled decision not to take his full ministerial salary (£71,000).
For me, that is evidence that Sinn Fein retains some connection with its mainly working-class base. For Hastings, it shows “certitude about his own moral compass” and this, he claims, is “the foremost requirement of a fanatic”.
On what appears to be the opposite side of the spectrum, McGuinness and Sinn Fein have been attacked by harder line Irish Republicans for yet another betrayal. Protests were held by dissident republicans, and senior SF councillor Alison Morris resigned in opposition to the event.
It’s important to register clearly what the critics are opposed to. On the republican side it isn’t seriously claimed that McGuinness or his party have become soft on the monarchy. For certain McGuinness and Sinn Fein have rapidly acclimatised to being part of the establishment and clearly enjoy being normal bourgeois politicians. What took place on 27 June was, however, more than just a further shift down that road.
The justification given by Sinn Fein had nothing to do with either the Queen or British rule. McGuinness described his move as “in a very pointed, deliberate and symbolic way offering the hand of friendship to unionists through the person of Queen Elizabeth for which many unionists have a deep affinity”. There is no reason not to take that rationale at face value. He went on to claim that this sort of symbolism had the potential to define “a new relationship between Britain and Ireland and between the Irish people themselves”.
That view can be criticised as naive. It can be attacked as a top-down way of managing the communal differences without challenging the fundamental causes. In common with most elements of the “peace process” it seems to reinforce rather than undercut cultural division. It’s a different matter, however, to criticise it for “going too far” towards the unionists. The least bad fault with modern-day SF is that they are insufficiently intransigent nationalists. Yet that is the criticism most commonly levelled at them from the left.
And it’s hard not to take some pleasure from the visible discomfort this event has caused to the British right. The fact that their Queen has felt it necessary to shake the hand of the former IRA commander has opened a very old sore for reactionaries.
The most reliable of these, Peter Hitchens, summed up the problem in the Mail on Sunday. After a few predictable and gratuitous personal swipes at McGuinness he compressed all his familiar anxieties into this short sentence: “If anyone doubted that the Good Friday Agreement was a humiliating surrender by a once-great country to a criminal gang, they can’t doubt it now.”
The sort of Tories whom Hitchens and Hastings write for spent their formative years insisting that those who took up arms to fight British rule anywhere in the world were no more than criminals. They said it too of Mandela and the ANC. Time and again they have seen these claims crumble to dust as the era of direct imperialist rule has given way to triumphant independence movements. And it hurts deeply.
Hitchens’ adult life has been blighted by one episode after another of “humiliating surrender” by his “once-great country” to movements fighting to free their countries from colonial or racist rule (or “criminal gangs” as he prefers to put it).
But the Irish people have not yet won a united independent state. The British have not surrendered and nor would it matter much if they did. The key to Irish territorial unity is, and has for decades been, democratic unity between its people. What Martin McGuinness did on 27 June offended the sensibilities of democrats and socialists because of our contempt for the institution of monarchy. However, his motive at least was progressive.
It was also republican in the sense defined by the founder of modern Irish republicanism Wolfe Tone — “to replace the name Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter with the common name Irishman”. We should be bold enough to point that out.