SF is still playing catch-up on the rest with peace process
Published 20/05/2015 | 02:30
It was once said of the Palestinians that they never missed an opportunity of missing an opportunity.
It was a perhaps glib but often accurate way of describing those missed chances in the Middle Eastern peace process, although in more recent years it could as easily be applied to the Israelis.
We have had our own missed opportunities in the Irish peace process. None more so than the way that Sinn Féin accepted the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and yet 25 years earlier in 1973, they and their IRA army rejected the ground-breaking Sunningdale Agreement which created a cross-party agreement, involving the two Governments, which was very similar to what emerged with the Good Friday deal. Sunningdale created a power-sharing Stormont arrangement not unlike what we have today, and it even had a Council of Ireland aspect to cater for a 'United Ireland' future - so why did the IRA reject it? Why did we have to endure another 20 years of violence? No wonder the Good Friday process was caustically described as "Sunningdale for Slow Learners"!
Since 1998, Sinn Féin has been playing catch-up and trying not to miss out on those crucial opportunities. And, in fairness, they have held fast to the existing overall agreement. However, four years ago, they missed a valuable opportunity when they effectively boycotted or snubbed the historic visit to Ireland by Queen Elizabeth. They showed themselves to be tone deaf to the mood of the Irish public, and to that of the queen herself, who was anxious to heal old wounds and pay homage to the Irish Republican tradition. In Sinn Féin's absence, the queen laid a wreath in the Garden of Remembrance and, amazingly, bowed in respect to the Republican dead. How could Sinn Féin have got it so wrong? Here was a golden, painless chance to copper-fasten the peace process and move things forward, and yet Sinn Féin stayed away.
It was especially remiss, given that the queen is an intelligent, circumspect woman whose aim was to be precisely non-triumphant and conciliatory.
A year later, Martin McGuinness, a politician apparently much more sensitive to these things than the party president Gerry Adams, made amends when he attended the Windsor Castle banquet held by the queen in honour of the visiting Irish President Michael D Higgins. He even shook her hand, as he had done in Belfast. Now Gerry Adams is playing catch-up by shaking the hand of Prince Charles.
But it's four years too late: it should have been done back in 2011, with the queen, and now it looks too much like getting on-side with an Irish electorate just months before a General Election.
Incidentally, this slow-coach approach to reconciliatory moments is not shared by all Sinn Féin members and during the queen's 2011 visit, the late SF mayor of Cashel Michael Browne welcomed the monarch to the town.
The slowness of Sinn Féin is understandable as they are fearful of moving too far ahead of their nationalist base.
However, in 2011, this put them closer to the hardcore Republican rent-a-mob who protested against the successful visit, than it did to the broad mass of the Irish public whom they seek to court.
By their absence from Dublin Castle in 2011, Sinn Féin seemed closer to the dissident Republicans, who will never be content with any closer ties, and who are a dangerous threat to Sinn Féin. But the problem with Sinn Féin is that it is all about symbolism. Incredibly, the party can share power in a Stormont with Ian Paisley's DUP and yet they can quibble and fuss over shaking hands with visiting British royalty. It is the same with their approach to Westminster. They will not take their seats in the UK parliament but they will run for election for it, and still claim some wages and expenses for staff.
And they will sit in government in the North. Go figure. The party's Mitchel McLaughlin has even quietly assumed the chairmanship of Stormont's Commonwealth Committee.
However, the fact Gerry Adams has now convivially met Prince Charles, before the latter goes to visit the scene where Lord Mountbatten was killed by the IRA, is very much to be welcomed.
And it is strange that the main political parties here were reportedly opposed to such a meeting, given that four years ago they would have dragged Adams up the carpet to meet the queen.
Let us hope that the electoral threat of Sinn Féin has not made our political parties think only of themselves these days and not of the overall good of the peace process.
In fairness, our political culture was presumably concerned that the 'Hollywood moment' of Adams shaking the prince's hand would overshadow the rest of the visit, an upstaging that the Sinn Féin leader is well capable of, from past form, and of milking.
Indeed, this is another problem with Sinn Féin on these matters: the cult of personality in the party and the fact that their leaders are still grim reminders of the war years. If a new generation of young SF leaders were in charge, such moments would not create so much fuss.
However, peace still comes dropping slow, and we should be grateful for more closure on the past and a further moving on.