Mcguinness handshake a watershed
IT WAS an extraordinary moment in the history of Anglo-Irish relations when Sinn Féin hard man Martin McGuinness reached out last week and shook the hand of the Queen of England. During a State visit that was replete with symbolism, this common human gesture was a powerful signal that things really have changed between Ireland and the ‘old enemy'.
The moment is captured wonderfully in a photograph that shows the Queen smiling broadly as she makes firm eye contact with McGuinness wearing a tie that's a deeper shade of the four green fields. Beside them, McGuinness's political colleague on the Northern Assembly Peter Robinson looks on, his expression hinting at a range of feelings that must have run from shock to awe. Was this really happening? Was it really real?
Not very long ago Martin McGuinness would sooner have bitten off his own hand than offer it to the monarch who, from an Irish Republican perspective, represents centuries of British injustice and oppression. The Queen too, must have had her own thoughts as she shook the hand of a man who would have considered her a ' legitimate target'. Her cousin Lord Mountbatten blown to Kingdom come in his boat in Sligo, the Household Cavalry blown to shreds in Hyde Park and the countless atrocities of ' the troubles' might have come to mind.
McGuinness’s sincerity and his motives might be questioned but when things move from a ballot box in one hand and an Armalite in the other to Martin McGuinness delicately holding the Queen's dainty fingers there's no disputing that times have indeed changed. And change is what last week's State visit to Britain was all about; change towards a better relationship between neighbours whose shared history has been tragic, brutal and self-maiming.
The road to the Queen's house in Windsor Castle has been a long and difficult one. Last week's State visit couldn't have happened without the work of Albert Reynolds, Dick Spring, Bertie Ahern, Presidents Robinson and McAleese, John Hume, David Trimble and many others who have seen that our history doesn't have to condemn us to a future as enemies of our nearest neighbour.
We were fortunate too, on this occasion, to have as an ambassador President Higgins whose eclectic range of interests from the Arts to politics and philosophy to horses, allowed him find common ground in every setting. And it was hugely important also that, at the Céiliúradh shindig in the Royal Albert Hall, he could tell the Diaspora that it's Ok to be Irish and have a shared cultural identity with Britain.
Most of all, what this week of pageantry and symbolism has achieved is to create distance between the shared future of Ireland and Britain and the dark, violent days of the troubles. When you hear the Queen of England talking of ‘co-operating to our mutual benefit, at ease in each other's company’, it moves any danger of a return to the bomb and the bullet to a more remote place. Now that’s something worth celebrating.