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Austin Stack: Are Sinn Fein brave enough to shake my hand?

MANY different views have been expressed about the handshake today between Martin McGuinness and Queen Elizabeth. While this much-needed step is to be commended, what motivations can Sinn Fein have in doing this now rather than last year when the queen visited these shores?

In the last week or so the Sinn Fein PR machine went into overdrive and milked their announcement of this handshake for all it was worth.

This naked manipulation of a simple act should be seen for what it really is. This is yet another way for the former representatives of paramilitaries to divert attention away from their past and proceed straight to some form of political normalisation without first reconciling with victims of the IRA or attempting to repair the damage they have done.

Maybe the outcome of last year's presidential election has had some influence on Sinn Fein's decision to take the queen's hand.

As that election campaign progressed it became apparent that victims of the IRA, myself included, wanted to take the opportunity afforded by that election to highlight a lack of any meaningful apology or expression of remorse by Mr McGuinness, Sinn Fein or the IRA.

As the victims began to air their views, the upward trend in Mr McGuinness's vote stopped and he began to lose ground. Sinn Fein will have taken note and they continue by all means possible to try and distance themselves from their past. What better way to do this than a photo opportunity with her majesty?

Yes, some people may fall for this but I feel the voting public are more clued in than that and they will see this PR stunt for what it actually is.

If Mr McGuinness and Sinn Fein want us to believe they have moved on, they are at some stage going to have to engage with IRA victims.

There would seem to be broad agreement across all the political parties of the need for a commission of reconciliation to deal with the legacy of the Troubles.

In their haste to bring about the Good Friday Agreement the governments of Ireland and Britain gave in to most of the demands sought by the paramilitaries without giving any consideration to the victims and their families.

This may have suited Sinn Fein, the IRA and both governments at the time, but by not addressing the victims issue they left a huge gap in the process which is only starting to have an effect now as Sinn Fein strives to make political gains.

Maybe it is now time for the political establishment in Ireland to stand up to Sinn Fein and put through legislation establishing a commission of reconciliation. How far Sinn Fein has moved towards political normality should be measured by their engagement in such a process and not by shaking hands with somebody for the sake of the optics. If a commission of reconciliation were to be established it should be based on the principles of restorative justice and the victim should be seen as the most important stakeholder. In such a process it is important that the former paramilitaries must take responsibility for their actions, they must express true remorse and they must offer some form of redress.

For our part, we the victims must be prepared to forgive the terrible atrocities that have been visited upon us. If this approach is to work both victims and perpetrators must enter into the process freely and without any pre-conditions.

Pre-conditions such as those previously requested by Sinn Fein for an amnesty before IRA members are willing to participate are simply unacceptable and would render the process unworkable.

It is important to remember that the success of the process determines the outcome -- so if, after meeting, both sides are in agreement and have been reconciled then and only then can something like a presidential pardon be considered.

You cannot have part of the outcome pre-determined, as Sinn Fein have suggested. This is one of the reasons why the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission failed to be the success it was first portrayed as being.

Mr McGuinness, Gerry Adams and their colleagues have nothing to fear from such a process. They will try to make a case that former IRA operatives will be incriminating themselves if there are no pre-agreements on pardons or amnesties.

However, checks and balances can be put in place to ensure that these fears are not realised and if they engaged with such a process in an honest manner there would be substantial benefits for them, most probably electorally.

On the other hand, for a victim to participate would take a huge act of bravery as they would be exposing themselves to reliving their worst nightmares and meeting face to face with the person who may have killed or maimed their loved ones.

Courage is something that the victims of our troubled past have plenty of and many are willing to meet and reconcile with those who have caused us much grief. There will be no photographic record of a handshake in these circumstances, but the handshake would be real and meaningful.

Sinn Fein has to make at least 1,800 of these meaningful handshakes. Shaking the queen's hand will be a significant step forward for Sinn Fein but are they brave enough to take my outstretched hand? Doing so will really show how far they have come.

Austin Stack is a prison officer and restorative justice advocate. His father Brian was the only prison officer killed in the Republic during the Troubles

Irish Independent