Martin McGuinness and “the hand of friendship to unionists”

March 21, 2017 at 6:50 am (communalism, From the archives, history, Ireland, Monarchy, nationalism, posted by JD, reformism, republicanism, RIP, strange situations)

Image result for picture Martin McGuinness met the Queen

By Sean Matgamna (first published in 2012)

In a hugely symbolic moment on 27 June, during a royal visit to Northern Ireland to mark her jubilee, the former commander of the IRA shook hands with the Queen.

The man who commanded the force responsible for, amongst other things, the death of the Queen’s cousin Lord Mountbatten, exchanged a handshake with the woman whose armed forces murdered 14 innocent civil rights marchers in his hometown of Derry. This was, all proportions guarded, a real life instance of David Low’s famous cartoon “Rendezvous” in which Hitler (“the bloody assassin of the workers”) greets Stalin as “the scum of the earth”.

The response of the press, in Britain, Ireland and internationally, was very positive.

The Guardian thought “it underlined how far we have come since the Troubles”. The Mirror contained an unusually calm and rational article from Tony Parsons who described it as “the end of something — the decades of hatred, loathing and bloodshed” as well as “the beginning of something, too — when the raw wounds of the past can perhaps begin to heal”.

The Belfast Telegraph, traditionally a Unionist paper, hailed the handshake as “bridging a gulf that spanned centuries”. The southern Irish press was unreservedly impressed. The New York Times called it “a remarkable sign of reconciliation for both figures”.

The working-class socialist response to this would seem to be fairly straightforward. McGuinness claims still to be a republican in both important senses of the word. As a “capital R” Republican he appeared to make peace with the highest symbol of British rule while her state and government continue to “occupy” the northern part of Ireland and deny his people self-determination.

Even more objectionable is his apparent suspension of “lower case” republicanism — the rejection of rule by hereditary, unelected privilege. Contempt for such an institution should be taken for granted by even the mildest democrat.

Didn’t McGuinness, by shaking the Queen’s hand, acknowledge both her right to rule and her government’s sway in Ireland?

A glance at the fiercest critics of this historic handshake is a reminder that things are more complicated.

Before the meeting the Daily Mail advised the Queen to burn her gloves after carrying out her “distasteful duty”. The Sun’s front page headline declared “We don’t blame you for wearing gloves M’am”. The Times cartoonist provided an image of the Queen putting on four pairs of gloves before shaking the bloodstained hand of McGuinness.

The idea that there might be plenty of blood on the monarch’s hands too didn’t occur to any of them.

The Daily Mail was the one paper that didn’t deem the occasion to be worth a front page story. Inside, though, they brought us arch-militarist Max Hastings under the headline “I’m sorry, even in the name of peace, it was wrong to shake his blood-soaked hand”.

Hunting for evidence that McGuinness, the deputy prime minister and latter-day conciliator, remained “a fanatic”, Hastings alighted on his principled decision not to take his full ministerial salary (£71,000).

For me, that is evidence that Sinn Fein retains some connection with its mainly working-class base. For Hastings, it shows “certitude about his own moral compass” and this, he claims, is “the foremost requirement of a fanatic”.

On what appears to be the opposite side of the spectrum, McGuinness and Sinn Fein have been attacked by harder line Irish Republicans for yet another betrayal. Protests were held by dissident republicans, and senior SF councillor Alison Morris resigned in opposition to the event.

It’s important to register clearly what the critics are opposed to. On the republican side it isn’t seriously claimed that McGuinness or his party have become soft on the monarchy. For certain McGuinness and Sinn Fein have rapidly acclimatised to being part of the establishment and clearly enjoy being normal bourgeois politicians. What took place on 27 June was, however, more than just a further shift down that road.

The justification given by Sinn Fein had nothing to do with either the Queen or British rule. McGuinness described his move as “in a very pointed, deliberate and symbolic way offering the hand of friendship to unionists through the person of Queen Elizabeth for which many unionists have a deep affinity”. There is no reason not to take that rationale at face value. He went on to claim that this sort of symbolism had the potential to define “a new relationship between Britain and Ireland and between the Irish people themselves”.

That view can be criticised as naive. It can be attacked as a top-down way of managing the communal differences without challenging the fundamental causes. In common with most elements of the “peace process” it seems to reinforce rather than undercut cultural division. It’s a different matter, however, to criticise it for “going too far” towards the unionists. The least bad fault with modern-day SF is that they are insufficiently intransigent nationalists. Yet that is the criticism most commonly levelled at them from the left.

And it’s hard not to take some pleasure from the visible discomfort this event has caused to the British right. The fact that their Queen has felt it necessary to shake the hand of the former IRA commander has opened a very old sore for reactionaries.

The most reliable of these, Peter Hitchens, summed up the problem in the Mail on Sunday. After a few predictable and gratuitous personal swipes at McGuinness he compressed all his familiar anxieties into this short sentence: “If anyone doubted that the Good Friday Agreement was a humiliating surrender by a once-great country to a criminal gang, they can’t doubt it now.”

The sort of Tories whom Hitchens and Hastings write for spent their formative years insisting that those who took up arms to fight British rule anywhere in the world were no more than criminals. They said it too of Mandela and the ANC. Time and again they have seen these claims crumble to dust as the era of direct imperialist rule has given way to triumphant independence movements. And it hurts deeply.

Hitchens’ adult life has been blighted by one episode after another of “humiliating surrender” by his “once-great country” to movements fighting to free their countries from colonial or racist rule (or “criminal gangs” as he prefers to put it).

But the Irish people have not yet won a united independent state. The British have not surrendered and nor would it matter much if they did. The key to Irish territorial unity is, and has for decades been, democratic unity between its people. What Martin McGuinness did on 27 June offended the sensibilities of democrats and socialists because of our contempt for the institution of monarchy. However, his motive at least was progressive.

It was also republican in the sense defined by the founder of modern Irish republicanism Wolfe Tone — “to replace the name Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter with the common name Irishman”. We should be bold enough to point that out.


  1. Mick said,

    Moral equivalence like this still proves leftists can be disgusting. It shows how you can feel honoured to have friends in Hamas and Hezbollah or, in the case of Obama, feel that giving them jobs can fix Isis. Or apologise to Libya for their religious killers butchering the US ambassador.

    There’s no comparison between the IRA, mandated to butcher and maim, and the British Army – even taking Bloody Sunday into account. IRA fans cheered each innocent death, while British Army fans are embarrassed about 1972, whether riots were checked or not. Even during strikes, security forces are attacked and expected to just get hurt by people in the left.

    And who knows what the Queen may have gone through in her mind, to do what she maybe felt she had to. It was still a terrible thing to do but that’s still one up from the Left. Labour had McGuinness as guest of honour at Labour conference, while Clinton sponsored charity support for Sinn Fein.

    The Left LOVE themselves a good bunch of extremist villains to suck off and excuse. Corbyn, again, excused IRA atrocities, with McDonnell and others even wishing they had succeeded in killing the British Government. Corbyn even excused his treachery as a ‘peace process’, a leftist way of cheapening John Major’s real attempts to stop the killing for genuine peace. For him it was a sacrifice, rather than socialist love.

    Lefties have no clothes, as usual, when they bitch about there being no love and peace shown by governments.

    • Glasgow Working Class said,

      Tbe second paragraph sums up the left. The womans whose armed forces murdered 14 marchers! Civil rights my arse. The Civil rights was a front for the IRA campaign. Some non Catholic members found that out too late.
      The British Army lured in to protect the Catholic population from the bad loyalists. Then it began.
      The left was split then as some did not swally the argument that the IRA were a socialist liberation movement.

      • Mick said,

        Even if the IRA were a socialist liberation movement, the political murders would at least have been in keeping!

  2. Political Tourist said,

    Crikey, some serious hard core Fash on here.
    And to think some folks in the Left are prepared to work with them.
    Shame on you, SLAB.

    • Mick said,

      I like how many on the left call people fascists for speaking out against their own murderers!

    • Glasgow Working Class said,

      Knew you would appear so very predictable. Smell the glove smell the shite.

  3. Mick O said,

    The decades of bloodshed and misery, as well as figures such as McGuinness, Adams and Paisley, will eventually lose significance.
    A United Ireland will come, in the not too distant future, with a whimper, not a bang, as a result of the Brexit vote.

    • Mick said,

      How do you figure that?

      • Mick O said,

        Open your eyes. Unionism isn’t what it was. The recent elections in NI were close. Both communities have come to appreciate the open border. There are few politicians on either side still in the game tainted with the sectarian violence of the past. The Tories are making all the right noises about not returning to a hard border, but with a hard Brexit, bearing in mind that the ROI are firmly in the EU corner, it won’t be their decision.
        The ROI is a different country today than it was even 20 years ago. The Catholic Church has nothing like the influence it did in the past.
        I hear anecdotally that the increase in Irish passport applications in the wake of Brexit includes numbers from the NI Protestant community.
        I wouldn’t predict a timeline, but a United Ireland must be a strong possibility in the future.

  4. Glasgow Working Class said,

    The problem is is that the Catholics only accept Protestants with reluctance and indeed the Protestants were treated as second class citizens when the Republic was formed thus the tens of thousands of Protestants that left.
    This will happen again if there is a United Ireland.
    The Catholics will have their little i e cold Catholic State and the bum bhoy Priest will be back.

  5. Political Tourist said,

    hee hee
    33 points and counting.

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