Sinn Fein boss 'taking the soup' offers hope of a boundless future
The President and the Queen echoed what most want for British-Irish relations, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards
THE best joke I heard about the Irish state visit was from a Derryman.
"Will Martin McGuinness be offered a choice of starters at the banquet?" he enquired. "Or will he have to take the soup?" (Runner-up was the Telegraph cartoon of a valet enquiring: "Will sir be wearing his formal, evening balaclava?" The Guardian deserves a special hilarious-error prize for reporting that in Westminster Higgins "name-checked the Magna Carta and Daniel O'Donnell.")
As in other ways, the Queen made life easier for McGuinness than it might have been. Soup wasn't on the menu. Mind you, vanilla ice-cream bombe was, but that wasn't a jibe at McGuinness.
Some of the British media allowed him to dominate the coverage ("IRA terrorist at the feast", "Dine with IRA killers, your Majesty, and it will be Al Qaeda terrorists next"), but as far as the palace was concerned this guest was just the Deputy First Minister of one of Her Majesty's three devolved governments.
For McGuinness, this was a heaven-sent opportunity to reassure southern electors that Sinn Fein has been domesticated and – if entrusted with office – won't smash up the place and make off with the family silver. It was also another important symbolic step towards his party taking seats in Westminster.
Sinn Fein MPs were lurking at the back of the Royal Gallery to listen to the President's address to both houses of parliament. "Good of you to look in, lads," wrote the Daily Mail sketch-writer Quentin Letts, a TCD graduate. "Can we show you your coat hooks while you're here?"
Unwittingly, Lord Tebbit, once a vital part of Margaret Thatcher's inner circle, helped increase the focus on McGuinness by voicing an opinion shared by many Brits gagging over their breakfasts at photographs of the Queen welcoming a tail-coated McGuinness
to her home: "There's always the possibility that a member of the Real IRA will be so outraged by Mr McGuinness bowing to the Queen that they might shoot him in the back for it. We can but hope."
This was a cue for various statements of outrage, following which Tebbit retracted his remarks. "I don't think I would advise anyone or entreat anybody to shoot Mr McGuinness. I would welcome it if he was brought to trial, of course."
He would be pleased to meet and talk to McGuinness if he owned up to the crimes of the IRA during his leadership, "pleaded for forgiveness and expressed his repentance". His wife Margaret, Tebbit reminded the BBC, had been imprisoned by immobility and pain from her injuries in the 1984 IRA bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton; nor has he been pain-free since.
The focus on victims was timely, though. Many had been moved by the little group of protesters mourning their dead outside the Windsor gates. President Higgins's remarks before he even left Dublin were appropriate. "Affecting a kind of amnesia is of no value to you. You are better to honestly deal with the facts that are standing behind you as shadows."
It is the way in which the Queen and the President did this that has been so striking about the two state visits. The Queen's visit in 2011 was a roaring success not least because she addressed the past unflinchingly and, in showing respect for old enemies in the Garden of Remembrance, demonstrated in practice what she meant by her words about "being able to bow to the past but not be bound by it".
Similarly, the President's bow in Westminster Abbey to the memorial to the Queen's cousin Lord Mountbatten, murdered by the IRA in 1979, was an illustration of what he meant when he told parliament that British-Irish relationship "has progressed from the doubting eyes of estrangement to the trusting eyes of partnership and, in recent years, to the welcoming eyes of friendship".
The two state visits have been a triumph and no one is happier about it than the hundreds of thousands of Irish-born immigrants who – like me – love the country where they were born and the country where they live.
All most of us ever wanted was what the Queen said at the Windsor banquet was the goal of modern British-Irish relations: "It is that we, who inhabit these islands, should live together as neighbours and friends. Respectful of each other's nationhood, sovereignty and traditions. Cooperating to our mutual benefit. At ease in each other's company."
I was one of the 5,000 cheering and singing at the Royal Albert Hall on Thursday night and rejoicing at the symbolism of British and Irish army bands together playing a heart-rending version of The Minstrel Boy. Now McGuinness has taken the metaphorical soup, we can dare to hope there might be no more pointless deaths in pursuit of an impossible dream.