I s it me or are we all gone a bit mad on this McGuinness-Windsor handshake thing? Everyone - English, Irish, unionist, nationalist, man, woman possibly a cyborg or two – seems convinced that this meeting/handshake is important, very significant and/or very very symbolic. But nobody seems able to agree on the meaning of this meeting/handshake. They just keep looking solemn and nodding.
Britain’s Daily Telegraph earlier this week said it was significant because it was the final decommissioning of Martin McGuinness. Ironically, the voices of dissident republicans seem to agree with the Daily Telegraph – this is a significant gesture because it shows Martin McGuinness is a traitor. In between The Daily Telegraph and the dissidents we have the Jeffrey Donaldsons, who say it’s long overdue but significant because it shows the acceptance of our monarch by Sinn Féin, and the Danny Morrisons who say get your head checked, Martin won’t be curtsying, he’ll be courteous.
All very confusing.
Let’s rewind a decade or two and see if that helps. Back then, you’ll recall, the DUP wouldn’t sit in the same studio as, let alone shake hands with, members of Sinn Féin. They did this, they told us, because they wanted to show how morally repugnant they found republicans. Sinn Féin back then said it was a silly attitude to adopt, that decent manners and dialogue never hurt anyone.
Things have moved on since with Sinn Féin and the DUP now sharing power as co-equals. By and large, Sinn Féin’s line on civility and dialogue seem to have won the day.
So to repeat: how should we, or even can we, interpret this handshake?
As I type this, I’m looking at a photograph on my computer of a smiling Richard Nixon shaking hands with Mao tse Tung. At the time it was taken the two men were diametrically opposed on how the world should be ordered. Nixon was a Republican president, committed to the joys of capitalism. Mao was a communist leader committed to non-stop cultural revolution. But there they are shaking hands, with Nixon showing no signs of submission to communism and Mao not looking as if he’s on his way to buy some shares. In other words, shaking hands doesn’t mean you’re buying into the other guy’s vision of the world.
Ditto the McGuinness-Windsor meeting. It doesn’t change the views of either party; what it shows is Sinn Féin acting in a grown-up manner to the woman unionists revere. Nor does it mean they think British monarchy or any monarchy is a good thing.
Will I tell you something? I’m tired to the back teeth with people shouting treachery, insult, offence. If McGuinness were to shake the head of the House of Windsor by the throat – now that might be described as truly significant. But it’s just her hand he’s going to grip. He’ll move it up and down briefly, then let it go.
So instead of getting apoplectic about possible symbolism that can mean anything you want it to mean, what say we focus on reality instead and ask a few questions.
Like, are we nearer to accepting unionist men and women as Irish people? Like, is everyone, unionist or republican or neither, treated equally under the law? Like, are we getting any nearer to Irish people running Irish affairs?
Let’s talk about that kind of thing rather than waste our day probing the meaning of gestures that maybe have no meaning other than what we construct for them.
Remember Jack Lynch not standing idly by? Now there was a meaningless gesture. Remember all the brave Bodenstown words from successive southern parties down the years? Those really gave new depth to the term meaningless. So please, people, can we stop getting excited about gestures, can we stop getting lost in the nutty world of personal interpretation? Instead, let’s try and keep it real.