Monday 18 December 2017

Paul Bew: What shaking hands with Queen Elizabeth really means to Sinn Fein

The historic handshake between former IRA commander Martin McGuinness and Queen Elizabeth
The historic handshake between former IRA commander Martin McGuinness and Queen Elizabeth

WHAT lies behind today’s historic handshake in Belfast between Queen Elizabeth and Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister? Well, the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 effectively ended the Troubles. It projected a new era of community psychotherapy. And all good community psychotherapy needs to be reinforced by acts of good authority.

Inevitably the Queen will have some difficult memories on her mind – and not just the IRA murder of Lord Mountbatten in Sligo in 1979. There was also the plot to kill the Prince and Princess of Wales at a Duran Duran concert in London, and the attempt against the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh on a trip to the province in the Roy Mason era. Like Hermione in The Winter’s Tale, Queen Elizabeth, bruised and silent for many years, has emerged to offer the healing touch of reconciliation.

But what do more political players hope to gain? For the British Government it is simple. It wishes to reinforce the peace process and make it irreversible. For Owen Paterson, the Conservative Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, there will be quiet satisfaction. When he took office there was much muttering in certain circles, and indeed in certain areas of officialdom, that the new government, with its more pro-Union tone, would endanger the gains made so far. In fact, such fears have proved groundless and Paterson has worked hard to maintain a good relationship with the Irish government. There is also a new type of mandarinate at the helm that wants to make its own contribution to the stability of Anglo-Irish relations. It is no accident that the current head of the Northern Ireland Office is Julian King, the United Kingdom ambassador in Dublin during the highly successful visit by the Queen.

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