This is the first and probably only time a picture of the Queen will appear on this blog. It appears here because she’s shaking hands with a murderer.
Despite well-argued protestations to the contrary, it is symbolic—a symbol of the long-awaited and much-appreciated peace northern Ireland has enjoyed for a nearly a decade, and which everyone involved wants to continue.
A sign that the English Lion can lie down long term with today’s Irish Republican lamb.
But let’s not get too carried away with it.
Is it as symbolic on its own scale as, say, the day Ulysses S. Grant shook hands with Robert E. Lee on the steps of Appomattox Courthouse after Lee had fought for five years in defence of black slavery? No, because the issue of right and wrong is much cloudier with McGuinness and Elizabeth.
Is it as symbolic on its own scale as the day ending the Second World War when the surrender of the Japanese was taken on board the battleship Missouri ? Not really. The peacetime attack on Pearl Harbour was far more murderous than anything McGuinness’s boys ever attempted, fortunately, and the picture of peace breaking out after three years of slaughter was much more widely welcomed.
But it is symbolic. Irish Republicans have still never forgiven the British for Ireland’s brutal seven-hundred year occupation; for the Potato Famine; for partition and the oppression of the Catholic minority in the Six Counties; for the murder of civilians in Derry and elsewhere during the Troubles. These are reasons enough to bear ill will. But the former commander of the IRA is shaking hands with the figurehead of everything British.
There are just as many well-rehearsed reasons for that figurehead to bear ill will towards McGuinness—the murder organised by McGuinness of her husband’s uncle Louis Mountbatten being just one of many of which you will all be aware. Yet she still shook hands—even if her husband couldn’t.
What the handshake symbolises then is that those things are in the past. There’s no likelihood of then happening again. That the peace begun when the IRA laid down their arms after the atrocity of 9/11—laid them down in part in the realisation they would never have the stomach for that scale of atrocity themselves—that peace has continued, its benefits are recognised, and the participants wish it to continue.
And being people of honour that desire for harmony is best symbolised with a handshake.
It’s true that one reason they can shake hands is because both the causes of Irish Republicanism and British Imperialism look somewhat quaint today. This is not the age of Parnell and Palmerston. The world has moved on, passing by what seemed issues of great moment generations ago. So in truth it’s a rather moth-eaten English Lion preparing to lie down with an emasculated Irish lamb.
Still, whatever they think themselves these two can only shake hands because their constituents support it. Perhaps their supporters too have come to understand that it matters less what colour flag you have flying over your head than what that flag stands for—and these days both the Union and Irish flags stand for much the same brand of failing mixed-economy morass.
In the end I think it is a good picture. It’s one of the better things the English Queen has done. I’d like to think it represents that same understanding that occurs at the end of wars like the two cited above; that animated the desire for peaceful coexistence in Chile after the fall of Pinochet rather than bloody retribution; that impelled Nelson Mandela’s Truth Commission after the ousting of South African apartheid; that we can only hope one day inspires those nursing grievances in Palestine –that as long as right is recognised and both sides can agree then in the long term peace is far better for everyone than war—and then even shaking hands with murderers might be worth it for the sake of the peace achieved.
It’s a shame the Queen’s husband couldn’t see his way clear to understanding that.