Journalists and members of the public continue to ask me “what will be the long term impact of that handshake” between the Queen and Martin McGuinness?
It is a fair enough question and merits a considered response. For the greater part, as a student of public life here, I hold to the view that there is a paucity of ‘big ideas’ emanating from governments in these islands and from our leaders generally. There is a corresponding scarcity of examples of real leadership.
The handshake between the Queen and Martin McGuinness is one of those rare leadership moments. In an international context I travel back to that remarkable coming together of Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat in Jerusalem.
The coincidence of leadership decisions taken by both the Queen and McGuinness not just this week, but in recent years, should not be ignored. The post Diana era was a disaster for the Queen.
The behaviour of her family heaped odium on her head. It took the Queen and her office some time to re-set the compass and to regain the respect of the public.
The Royal visit to Ireland over a year ago was a tour de force. In addressing President Mary McAleese, poet Seamus Heaney et al i ngaeilge, the Queen recoursed to the most powerful means imaginable of any Head of State to acknowledge another people’s nationhood and national identity.
Of course one would have expected the Queen to honour those Irishmen who died fighting for Britain in the wars. Paying homage in the Garden of Remembrance to those who lost their lives fighting for Irish freedom and then travelling to Croke Park, the hallowed ground of the GAA upon which British forces unleashed a rein of terror in 1920, could easily have been deemed a bridge too far.
The British Monarch didn’t baulk at the challenge. I know, given her affinity with horses, she will not mind my saying, she cleared ‘the water jump’ beautifully. That was leadership.
Martin McGuinness has carried himself with décorum since assuming the rôle of deputy First Minister. His deference to former First Minister Ian Paisley, mindful of his age, was exemplary and well noted.
His ‘cover’ for Peter Robinson while the First Minister was going through his personal domestic crisis has stood him in good stead. Mr McGuinness remained dignified, supportive and silent.
Confronted with the ongoing dissident republican attacks on members of the PSNI, McGuinness was constant. He visited the injured in hospital and not alone did he stand shoulder to shoulder with former Chief Constable Hugh Orde and Peter Robinson, but he crossed the Rubicon in branding the killers of Constable Stephen Carroll and the soldiers at Massereene “traitors.”
We shouldn’t forget from where Martin McGuinness came and at whom he was now directing the ultimate insult “traitor.”
In the run up to the Queen’s visit an indignant McGuinness said ”when I take a decision, I stand by that decision.” The deputy First Minister was responding to reports circulating that there would be no public record of the handshake. McGuinness wanted transparency. He got transparency.
The Queen clearly ‘swallowed hard’ and buried her historical hurt even though Prince Philip may well have come close to choking, on shaking hands with Martin McGuinness.
We cannot lose sight of the fact that McGuinness was a former commander of the IRA which killed a member of the royal family and tried to wipe out the Queen’s Cabinet.
So what will be the follow through? Courage begets courage. The example shown by the Queen and Martin McGuinness will empower and embolden others to take risks, to lead the way.
The most telling narrative on ‘that handshake’ came from voices on the Shankill Road. The majority of those voices supported the shaking of hands. Those voices were not triumphalist or exploitative in any way.
“A step forward” was a common theme. Could Martin McGuinness walk the Shankill Road today? Yes he could. That is what has changed.
One footnote: Peter Robinson had to bite his lip. There were only two stars on the world stage, Martin McGuinness and the Queen. Peter was again the bridesmaid. He had to play that rôle in the context of ‘cross-borderism,’ ‘an artificial political configuration’ designed to facilitate ‘that handshake.’
The First Minister behaved nobly and he showed real leadership in having Iris his wife by his side at the Titanic event. That too, given all the personal hurt and ignominy visited upon him by his wife, was a public act of forgiveness.
Who knows, but that act of humanity by Peter Robinson towards his wife may also empower and embolden others to show courage, forgiveness and leadership.