Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness this evening stood for the British national anthem and toasted the “health and happiness” of the English queen in the most symbolic gesture yet of his party’s support for the status quo in the north of Ireland.
Mr McGuinness was attending a banquet at Windsor Castle in honour of the 26 County President Michael D Higgins, the first official state visit by an Irish head of state to the English capital.
The visit was described by government press officers in Dublin and London as the “final step to normal relations” between the two states, and follows the infamous visit by the English royals to Dublin in 2011.
The queen said that the “heightened relations” which followed that visit had pleased her. “Even more pleasing, since then,” she said, “is that we, the Irish and British, are becoming good and dependable neighbours and better friends; finally shedding our inhibitions about seeing the best in each other.”
Earlier today, President Higgins addressed the Westminster parliament -- another first for a 26 County President -- before being driven in a ceremonial carriage to the castle to prepare for the royal banquet.
But amid the tightly choreographed pageantry, it was the actions of Martin McGuinness, a former IRA commander and now Six County Deputy First Minister, which proved the most controversial element.
McGuinness sat just 15 places away from the queen, close to the centre of the 160-foot long table which seated all 160 guests.
His participation infuriated Irish republicans ahead of the anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising. His unexpected decision to toast the queen -- a gesture which Irish citizens have historically refused to join -- was described by traditionalists as “a gratuitous insult” to Ireland’s patriot dead.
Socialists in Ireland and Britain have also pointed to the inequity of highly paid government officials enjoying a sumptuous menu of delicacies -- Isle of Gigha Halibat and tournedos of Windsor estate beef were among them -- while welfare cuts have forced people into soup kitchens or emigration.
In his speech, President Higgins made reference to the queen’s visit to Ireland, in which she “admirably” did not “shy away from the shadows of the past”.
He said: “Your gracious and genuine curiosity, your evident delight in that visit, including its equine dimension, made it very easy for us to express to you and, through you to the British people, the warmth of neighbourly feelings.”
People had been “moved” by the Windsors’ “gestures of respect” at sites of national historical significance in Ireland, he said. “These memorable moments and these moving words merit our appreciation and, even more, our reciprocity.”
As a sign of that ‘reciprocity’, officials in Dublin and London are understood to be planning for Windsor to stand alongside President Higgins during the centenary Commemorations of Easter 1916, as a symbolic gesture of Anglo-Irish unity.
While endorsing McGuinness’s actions, Sinn Fein Leader Gerry Adams also said minds should be on the need for political leaders to resolve “all of the outstanding issues in the peace process.”
He said that peace needed to be “celebrated on the streets as well as in the palaces and the big houses”.
The Irish Republican Socialist Party was more critical. It said that “unlike other actions since 1998 this move cannot be spun as a concession for the good of the peace.”
They said as “an active move” by Sinn Fein to “seek engagement with the highest echelons of the British establishment whilst normalising and copper-fastening the economic and physical occupation of the Island”.
The Republican Network for Unity said McGuinness’s actions were “incompatible” with “even the basic ideals of Republicanism” and that they had “given legitimacy” to “monarchy, privilege and the class system”.
“In these times of austerity, rising poverty and enforced inequality across Ireland, England and beyond; the hosting of a one-time revolutionary leader in the residence of the British monarch represents a victory for the enemies of freedom and working class struggles everywhere,” they said.
“All progressive thinking people - including Sinn Fein members - will be disheartened by this farcical decision. RNU shares their sentiments.”