The politics behind the handshake – Tommy McKearney on Sinn Féin and the Queen

Tommy McKearney

In a guest post Tommy McKearney, author of The Provisional IRA: From Insurrection to Parliament, argues that the handshake between Martin McGuinness and the Queen was political theatre and that the focus of the media on it distracts attention from the real problems facing the people of Northern Ireland.

Britain’s monarch visited Belfast on Wednesday and shook hands with Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister in the local devolved regional assembly. Throughout Northern Ireland the level of unemployment is as high as it was prior to the royal visit, security walls to keep neighbours apart are as permanent as they were before Elizabeth arrived and Northern Ireland’s local media has returned to reporting the usual tensions generated by the Orange Order in the run-up to the annual battle of the Boyne celebration on 12 July. In other words and in spite of the media ballyhoo, it is business as usual in this most westerly region of Mrs Windsor’s kingdom.

Of course it was a remarkable and notable media moment when Britain’s head of state (and commander in chief of the country’s armed forces) met with a former chief of staff of the Irish Republican Army. Undoubtedly, it was gripping drama to have the queen meet a reformed rebel. At the same time, there has been many similar memorable moments on British television and most receive their due recognition at the annual British Soap Awards. The handshake was of no greater significance than any other pointless gesture and contributed nothing to improving the quality of life for the masses.

Therein lies the real difficulty many of us have with this contrived handshake. It was merely a piece of theatre, which does nothing to address the real problems faced by the people of Northern Ireland. If anything, this type of symbolic posturing is actually harmful. It displaces and/or prevents mature and necessary debate and reflection on the unequal nature of our society and the detrimental impact of Britain’s ruling class upon the public’s well being.

Martin McGuinness was presented with what was possibly a once in a lifetime opportunity to explain a republican position and philosophy, not just to the unionist people of Northern Ireland but also to the wider British population. As Deputy First Minister at the time of a jubilee visit, he would have had airtime on each network and coverage from every press outlet in Britain and Ireland. By refusing to meet the queen, Martin could have raised questions about the very nature of the British monarchy and in doing so, opened to scrutiny many of the systemic faults afflicting contemporary society.

Why, he might have asked, is the monarchy still guilty of one of the most blatant acts of discrimination in the United Kingdom? The royal family adheres to the Act of Succession, which excludes from the throne every person who is not a practising member of the Church of England? This may not seem important to some but, nevertheless, it sends a dangerous signal to nasty elements in Britain that ancient and destructive privileges are justified as a birthright. Moreover, in the context of Northern Ireland, community relations are hardly improved by ignoring the fact that only a member of the reformed church is worthy of being head of state.

Martin McGuinness might also have raised the matter of Britain’s armed forces. Why did a man who witnessed the events of Bloody Sunday in his hometown, not seek to criticise an institution (i.e. the monarchy) that is uncritically supportive of Britain’s military? Britain’s soldiers and sailors have not only played a cruel part in Ireland’s history but Martin would have done well to point out that the current actions of British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are hardly beyond criticism either.

Most crucial of all perhaps was why Martin did not raise the issue of the profoundly anti-democratic practice of a having a hereditary head of state? Nothing reinforces the dire inequality produced by the British class system so much as the endorsement granted by monarchism to the transfer of power, prestige and wealth within the elite section of society. Gross inequality, which is at its worst in Britain since 1940 according to an article by Professor Danny Dorling in the Guardian, is not only offensive to our sense of justice but is an economic blunder. Encouraging the over concentration of wealth in fewer hands not only deprives an economy of the spending power necessary to promote growth but also leads directly to the type of ‘casino’ capitalism that has caused the current financial crisis and the subsequent impoverishment of millions.

Had Sinn Fein and Martin McGuinness decided to adopt and articulate the republican position outlined above, unionists in Northern Ireland may well have criticised their decision. It would, however, have been a significant step towards inviting that community to deal meaningfully with Irish republicanism as a coherent philosophy rather than as a hostile ethnic identity. It would not have provided a panacea but then, allowing people to think that deference to monarchy is progress is hardly a remedy either. Moreover, it would have given Irish republicans a rare opportunity to make a positive and progressive contribution to a necessary debate about wealth and privilege in our neighbouring island across the Irish Sea.

Tommy will be speaking at the Marxism 2012 festival in central London, on Saturday 7th July at 3.45pm.

The Provisional IRA

From Insurrection to Parliament

Tommy McKearney

Analyses the Provisional IRA’s formation, development, and prospects for the future.

“Tommy McKearney’s story is one of those ‘must read’ books for anyone interested either in the struggle within Northern Ireland itself or in the overall relationship between England and Ireland.” – Tim Pat Coogan, former editor of the Irish Press and author of The I.R.A. (1970; 2000).

“If we had to choose one person who served in the ranks of the IRA to contextualize the organization’s development from revolution to reform it would be Tommy McKearney. A seasoned volunteer with considerable military and political experience McKearney knows his subject matter. In terms of both left-wing politics and IRA activism he has walked the walk. Now he explains to a wider audience the dynamics behind the IRA and in the process gives the reader a new intellectual window through which the IRA campaign can be reappraised. Any student of the IRA who does not have this book in their library will find their comprehension diminished.” – Anthony McIntyre, former IRA volunteer and ex-prisoner

£13.99 only £12.50 on the Pluto site

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