McGuinness at the top table as Bertie is written out of history
The thought that all political careers end in failure was particularly relevant last week.
"I therefore invite you, distinguished guests, to stand and join me in a toast:
To the health and happiness of Her Majesty and His Royal Highness, and the people of the United Kingdom;
To a creative cooperation and a sustainable partnership between our countries and our peoples; and
To valued neighbours whose friendship we truly cherish."
WITH those words, President Michael D Higgins invited the 160 distinguished guests in attendance to raise a glass in toast to A Shoilse Banrion, Queen Elizabeth, at a state banquet at Windsor Castle on Tuesday night.
After he spoke, the orchestra played God Save The Queen.
The ex-Provisional IRA leader Martin McGuinness, now the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, sat 15 place settings away at a table that it took two days to set.
Kitted out in his finest white tie, calm and relaxed, McGuinness stood and toasted the Queen.
He was seated between the President of the Royal Society, Sir Paul Nurse, and the Director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, across the table from the President of Ireland, who was next to Queen Elizabeth herself.
And they say all political careers end in failure. . .
As they gathered in Windsor Castle, former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern was photographed, looking older and – truth be told – a little weary, but still the same old Bertie on the streets of his native Drumcondra in Dublin.
That morning, he gave an interview to Morning Ireland in which he, more or less, wished them all the best for the big day.
Later in the week, in a statement of congratulations to the President on the success of the state visit, Micheal Martin chose not to mention by name either of the former Taoisigh, Albert Reynolds and Bertie Ahern, without whom the state visit would not have been possible.
The Fianna Fail leader did say: "This visit is the culmination of two decades of hard work building the peace process and fashioning a new context between our countries."
As by the State itself, however, it seems Bertie Ahern has also been written out of Fianna Fail, the party he once led, from which he resigned after Micheal Martin made known his intent to throw him out for "conduct unbecoming" related to the findings of the Mahon Tribunal.
On the day of his resignation as Taoiseach, May 6, 2008, the Guardian newspaper published an article by Fintan O'Toole, who made no reference at all to the Good Friday Agreement, but focused almost entirely on the events examined by the tribunal.
O'Toole wrote: "Any one element of this scandal would
have been enough to shame almost any office holder in the democratic world into resignation, but right up until yesterday morning, Bertie Ahern gave a master class in shamelessness."
At the state visit last week, the Conservatives also chose to write their own version of history.
For neither was the former Prime Minister Tony Blair, a former Labour leader, in attendance at the state banquet: but the Tories did invite their own hero of the hour, John Major, who with Albert Reynolds had forged the first essential relationship that led to agreement 16 years ago.
On our side of the celebration, as it were, there was the Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny, the Foreign Affairs Minister and Labour leader Eamon Gilmore and the President, of course.
According to media reports, the Communications, Energy and Natural Resources Minister Pat Rabbitte was also present – all in all, then, a curious mix of what we might call former blueshirts and stickies and active shinners.
To the victor, the spoils. . .
But it was Martin McGuinness who hogged the limelight in the UK media the next day, photographed meeting and greeting prime ministers and a president, actors and sport stars – the great and the good – and, later still, shaking the hand of the Queen.
The UK media seems to be fulminating in something of the debate we have had here for some time, arguably since the former President, Mary Robinson, away from the cameras, first shook the hand of Gerry Adams in 2003; and again when McGuinness sought to be the President of Ireland in 2011.
The presidential election proved to be a step too far for most here, but the Deputy First Minister still achieved 13.7 per cent of the vote.
Last week, President Michael D Higgins, and his wife, Sabina, rose to the occasion, as though his success in that election was for this moment.
But Sinn Fein is now at a consistent 20 per cent in the opinion polls and, as such, is poised to do well, with Independent candidates, in the local and European elections next month.
Which raises the conundrum already faced by Bertie Ahern and which still lies in wait for the leadership of Sinn Fein, to do with the philosophy of Enoch Powell: all political lives end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.
If the morality of human affairs is not only a challenge but a challenge that, in the long run, we are destined to always fail, the question is – when will the political life of Martin McGuinness end in failure?
Last week, the debate in the UK drew extremes in the debate, some crude, though still raw in pain, others more nuanced.
In an editorial last week, the Guardian also said that some in Britain will be tempted to dismiss the President's visit as a sideshow, but said that was not how it was seen in Ireland.
"That's worth remembering, because the networks of connection between the different nations of these islands are currently being put to the test. The Scottish referendum, like the history of British-Irish relations, is a reminder that nations and states can evolve as well as endure."
From their media, the UK public right now seem fixated on the royal baby and a property boom, with a background narrative related to Ukip and the independence referendum in Scotland, the outcome of which will test the endurance of the UK.
In Ireland, we also seem fixated – rightly so – on issues related to retribution and reform: the Anglo Trial, An Garda Siochana, investigations into CRC and Rehab, and will be soon on an inquiry into the banks.
But events are unfolding at a rate too slow to keep pace with political developments in rapid evolution.
In recent months, Fianna Fail has, for the first time in years, shown a tentative sign that it may, eventually, be in a position to fill a third, maybe half, of the seats around cabinet table – if the party can fully emerge from its shadow.
There is no doubt, though, that a momentum is with Sinn Fein, yet to tell the truth about its time in an scath, the shadow.
A majority here is not yet ready to let all of that go – a falling majority, however: close to a third are now in serious flirtation with the idea of Sinn Fein in government.
The events of last week will further propel the momentum towards an unsatisfactory consummation in denial.
Which raises a difficult question for those who, as Tony Blair said in his biography, flirted in their youth with the somewhat determinist branch of Marxist-oriented leftwing politics.
The peace process, he said, was a classic example of how individual people, in a certain place at a certain moment in time, can make the difference.
With a different cast of individuals, the outcome may well have been adverse, he said: "We were immensely fortunate to have an Irish leadership – in the form of Bertie Ahern and his key ministers – that was prepared to lay aside the grievances and attitudes of the past."
In his toast to A Shoilse Banrion and her husband, A Mhorgacht Rioga, the President also paid tribute to his immediate predecessors, Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, which, as protocol allows, seemed to be as much as he could do.
Earlier, in his address to the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, he also reached into history to acknowledge others whose notable achievements are shrouded in the mists of time: Constance Markiewicz, Eva Gore-Booth, Daniel O'Connell, Tom Kettle.
The paradox is that, while McGuinness still thrives in the shelter of the present, to an extent that he may yet disprove Enoch Powell, Bertie Ahern remains defeated in the shadow of his past, denied or delayed his right, or justice, to the present.