Michelle O’Neill’s presence at King Charles’s coronation will help foster grown-up politics
Sinn Féin’s original founder, Arthur Griffith, was a monarchist of sorts, advocating “a dual monarchy” for Ireland and Britain modelled on the so-called “augleich” between Austria and Hungary. Griffith’s book, The Resurrection of Hungary – A Parallel for Ireland, sold a creditable 30,000 copies in 1904, the year before Sinn Féin was founded.
The Sinn Féin of today is not the same party as the one founded by Griffith, but there is a strange echo of Griffith attached to the announcement by Sinn Féin’s Northern Ireland first minister designate Michelle O’Neill that she will attend the coronation of King Charles tomorrow week. The Griffith echoes reflect his renowned pragmatism and focus on the future over past grievances. The tone and content of Ms O’Neill’s announcement hark back to those priceless Griffith attributes.
“We are living in a time of great change,” she said. “A time to respect our differing and equally legitimate aspirations, a time to firmly focus on the future and the opportunities that the next decade will bring.”
This gesture does not in any way impugn her republican or Irish nationalist convictions, in the same way that President Michael D Higgins’s planned attendance does not undervalue his egalitarian and leftist beliefs. Neither has suddenly become royalist – both are making a simple neighbourly gesture that respects the right of people in Britain to choose a constitutional monarchy as their government model.
Ms O’Neill’s decision builds on the gesture last autumn when she attended the funeral of Queen Elizabeth. She rightly said it reflected her respect for Northern Ireland’s unionist community, with its members’ allegiance to the royal family, and an ambition to advance peace and mutual respect.
All of these are essentially good and true words and she is entitled to have them taken at face value. However, we must also acknowledge other political factors at play here.
Paramount here is the active role played by the British royal family in promoting good relations in these islands and among the divided communities of Northern Ireland. Lord Louis Mountbatten, the great-uncle of the incoming King Charles III, was a friend and mentor to the young prince. He was murdered, along with three others, by an IRA bomb at sea off Sligo in 1979.
The events of that day of infamy were very personal to Charles, to his parents and to very many others. The new king earned considerable admiration and respect for the way he overcame his profound feelings and got to a point where he could subsequently shake the hand of known IRA leaders.
Charles and his queen consort, Camilla, have become regular and welcome visitors to Ireland. An early and more official visit has the potential to help reverse the deterioration in British-Irish relations since the Brexit vote in June 2016.
Ms O’Neill’s decision is a controversial gesture that provoked anger among her followers and her opponents, but the late Queen Elizabeth showed us the power of positive gestures.