Tomorrow the former Provisional IRA chief of staff Martin McGuinness will shake hands with the British queen at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. The event has been made possible by the earlier negotiated surrender of the IRA. Surrendering honourably is better than holding out to the last. The leaders of the 1916 Rising in Dublin chose to surrender rather than subject the city’s population to further bloodshed.
In politics as in other areas of life it is often necessary to compromise principles. But there is a gulf between compromise and abandonment that should not be bridged. Otherwise radical ideas and the notion of oppositional currents are devalued. What does it say about the plausibility of the adversarial position if the values espoused in opposition are jettisoned just to make it into office?
McGuinness will not be standing in front of the British head of state on equal terms: as head of another state that had gained its independence from Britain. He is there as deputy head of a state over which the British hold unalloyed sovereignty and which he ostensibly spent much of his adult life trying to destroy.
Peter Hain, the former secretary of State for the North of Ireland, has said that ‘many Republicans will see it as a betrayal.’ He is right. They will feel that McGuinness and Sinn Fein have not simply compromised core principles but abandoned them, principles that he and his colleagues in positions of leadership directed others to both take life and risk losing possession of their own mortal coil in pursuit of. In Derry where McGuinness is domiciled, graffiti has appeared on walls: ‘U Dare Marty’ and ‘Sinn Fein sellouts.’ At a rally in South Armagh on Sunday, where many British troops and policemen exhaled their death rattle, courtesy of the IRA campaign, McGuinness was denounced as a traitor who had persistently lied to his volunteers.
Whatever about the intemperate language in which it is adorned, the substance of republican opposition to tomorrow’s meeting hardly renders it the perspective of past-hugging dinosaurs. Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood recently declined to attend a service in the Queen’s presence at Llandaff Cathedral which was laid on to mark the Diamond Jubilee. The Plaid Cymru Assembly member for South Wales West, Bethan Jenkins, described Martin McGuinness as ‘naïve’ for going ahead with the meeting. Boycotting monarchy is a perfectly legitimate position for republicans to adopt.
Irish republicans who express that dissent do so in the context of a British state which continues to behave badly: just last week it denied a public inquiry into the massacre of civilians in Belfast in 1971 while continuing to seek prosecution of republicans they suspect of involvement in the IRA campaign. This week it is indulging in gratuitous flag waving by having the Armed Forces flag hoisted for six days at Belfast City Hall, riding roughshod over nationalist protests that such action is coat trailing triumphalism.
The British monarchy in opting to shake the hand of McGuinness is hardly unaware of the perspective outlined in the Boston Globe: ‘there are many law enforcement officials, Irish and British, who believe McGuinness was running the IRA or was at least on its ruling Army Council, when the plan to blow up Mountbatten was approved.’
Yet it is the path the monarchy has decided to tread, even if holding its nose. Why? Norman Tebbit, who survived the Brighton bomb in 1984, explained it succinctly: McGuinness and Sinn Fein have ‘now accepted the sovereignty of Her Majesty over Northern Ireland.’ Strange bedfellows perhaps but The Daily Telegraph is not out of sync with peeved republicans when it proclaims ‘the British establishment completes the decommissioning of Martin McGuinness.’
Tomorrow’s event will be tarted up in the discourse of the peace process, which invariably serves to mask essences and runs with the decoy of appearances. Despite much discursive massaging the matter has little if anything to do with reaching out to unionists. If Sinn Fein and McGuinness were really concerned with embracing unionist sensitivity they would desist from denying that the IRA carried out the Kingsmill massacre in 1976, an act on an ethical par with Derry’s Bloody Sunday in Derry 1972. The strategic thinking behind tomorrow’s initiative is consistent with Sinn Fein’s expansionist strategy in the South of Ireland where everything is gauged in terms of conquering electoral terrain, not creating ethical terra firma sufficiently fortified to bear the reconciled weight of two separate traditions. Sinn Fein’s electoral ambitions, not reconciliation with unionism, is what fuels Martin McGuinness meeting the Queen.
However, having scorned the opportunity during the royal visit to Ireland last year, Sinn Fein’s transparently crass manipulation of tomorrow’s event may end up alienating more votes than it attracts.