Liz O’Donnell

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Sorry still the hardest word for SF even after all this time

Liz O'Donnell

Published 12/04/2014|02:30

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It was another significant gesture during a state visit that meant so much – in the Great Hall at Windsor Castle, the North's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness warmly shook the hand of Britain's Queen Elizabeth, watched by First Minister Peter Robinson and President Michael D Higgins. Photo: PA
It was another significant gesture during a state visit that meant so much – in the Great Hall at Windsor Castle, the North's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness warmly shook the hand of Britain's Queen Elizabeth, watched by First Minister Peter Robinson and President Michael D Higgins. Photo: PA

Tommy Gorman could hardly conceal his excitement. The headline on the 9 o'clock news was that Martin McGuinness would accept the invitation of Queen Elizabeth to attend a banquet in Windsor Castle as part of the State visit of President Higgins. This was newsworthy, given the McGuinness non-participation in the 2011 Royal visit to Ireland.

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That visit was a triumph and politically flawless. Most people felt Sinn Fein had been out of step with the public mood by not attending the ceremonies. McGuinness's attendance this week was welcome, therefore, but in my view, it was ill-judged for RTE to portray it as "taking a risk for peace", to quote Gerry Adams in a blatant piece of propaganda.

A recent RTE documentary on Seamus Mallon, the former deputy first minister, was a reminder of the many compromises made by constitutional politicians, for the greater good of ending the conflict.

The truth is, that contrary to the eulogising of Sinn Fein by some, the parties of moderation and non-violence on both sides took the greatest risks for peace. The SDLP in particular, was selfless in its contribution. David Trimble, too, led his divided party into a very uncertain deal, with a half-baked promise on decommissioning. Arms were eventually put beyond use, but with such tardiness that Trimble's party was electorally destroyed, losing all but one of its Westminster seats to the DUP.

So, the peacemakers lost out to the extremes when it came to the ballot box. History will be kinder to these peacemakers than contemporary politics has been.

Seamus Mallon, dismayed by the unprincipled actions of the British government in its side deals with Sinn Fein, never bought into their celebrity status. He saw the IRA campaign for what it was – unadorned, unconscionable and bloody. He was candid about his complex relationship with John Hume, whose single-minded pursuit of peace was blind – even indifferent – to the welfare of his own party.

Mallon, like Hume, was an experienced parliamentarian in the British system and a veteran of earlier British/Irish attempts at peace, such as Sunningdale. Over the years of the 1990s Peace Process, he and others suspended their critical faculties for the greater good, while Sinn Fein used the retention of arms as a means of extracting more political concessions. They were pocketing nationalist votes using the armalite and the ballot box. All that is history. These days, Sinn Fein is in government in the North and stands at 21 pc in the polls here. Good luck to them.

So, thankfully by the end of the week, my worst fears that the president's visit would turn into just another 'episode' of the Peace Process, were not realised. The visit received huge and positive media coverage and for diverse reasons other than conflict resolution.

However, there is a depressing element in that the people from the extremes garner all the attention and remain centre stage. Would the presidential visit have received so much media attention in the UK, or here, were it not for the attendance of Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness? Probably not. I noticed several Sinn Fein MPs in the audience in the House of Commons for the president's speech when normally they do not attend Westminster. David Trimble was there like a ghost from the past, but there was no sign of Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair, without whom the Peace Process would not have worked. And for all the gestures of reconciliation made by the queen – including the quite extraordinary offer to join in the events commemorating 1916 and Ireland's independence – there is no reciprocal move from Sinn Fein. It still clings to its unique version of history and skewed reasoning, which would seek to justify horrendous mass murder of civilians over 30 years of the 'armed struggle.'

While the rest of the body politic bury the hatchet and move on, the central credo of Sinn Fein is unchanged, and there is no looking back with regret or apology for all the lost lives and broken bodies.

I listened on the radio to the father of a 12-year-old killed in an IRA bomb. He made this point very well and it would, I am sure, be replicated by thousands of victims' relatives. They have not yet been reconciled and there is unfinished business on the part of Sinn Fein. A genuine heartfelt unconditional apology is long overdue. The pandering to Sinn Fein, which was necessary to build confidence and persuade it away from violence and into democratic politics, should be redundant now.

The whole week was a fitting sequel to the Royal visit. Over-the-top pageantry seemed grand for once, somehow, now that we Irish were riding in the carriage. Visually, it was like a fairy tale, with excited Irish emigrants gathering to welcome their own prince to Windsor.

President Higgins made us proud by his intellect and delivery. Most at ease in Parliament, his speech was scholarly yet humble, expertly using language to overcome the tensions of history. Earlier in the afternoon, the president and Mrs Higgins had bowed their heads in respect at the monument to Lord Mountbatten, murdered with his family by an IRA bomb in 1979 in Sligo. It was a hugely symbolic act of commiseration which acknowledged mutual grieving and heartache.

President Higgins was clearly intent on making this State visit to the United Kingdom a master-class of positive politics. He recognised those who, through elected politics on both islands, had delivered the peace by way of "constitutional combination of good and wise men working towards a creative reconciliation". The Speaker of the House of Commons said the two countries were "natural political social and economic partners" and that it was our "humanity not our history, that should determine our future". There was no mention of the parties of violence, which was as political as it was diplomatic. All agreed this week marked a new beginning, a "fresh canvas on which to sketch a shared future". It was the stuff of poetry.

Irish Independent

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