When it was announced that the Queen was to visit Northern Ireland as part of her Diamond Jubilee tour, there was a bit of flim-flam in the papers about what sort of security would be laid on. When, several days ago, it was announced that Maj would be meeting Martin McGuinness, deputy first minister, there was a gasp — and then the universal rush for the gag. “What do you do?” “Well, I don’t join the IRA, your majesty, that’s for sure.” “What do you do?” “Several of your relatives, etc. Private Eye nailed it with its cover, featuring Maj in full bomb-disposal gear, complete with diving helmet headpiece. Nice hat, ma’am.
The Queen’s visit was always going to be a nightmare for the royal family itself, and for Sinn Fein. The party’s strategy of enthusiastically participating in government — with, at one point, Ian Paisley and McGuinness effectively sharing the first ministry of the province — has already involved it in a whole series of sticky symbolic situations, how to stand during God Save The Queen, dealing with the police force (the PSNI, replacing the RUC), etc.
This often involves frank absurdity — when Gerry Adams quit his Westminster seat (which, of course, he did not occupy), he simply put in a letter of resignation — which, it being the UK, was not enough, he had to go through the charming rigmarole of applying for the Manor of Northstead, a device for MPs to quit Parliament. Adams refused to do so, the resignation letter was taken as an application, the whole thing went on for months.
The mad tussle was essential for Adams, of course — a Sinn Fein member could never be seen to acknowledge the British state in its everyday processes, as regards the six counties. Sinn Fein had already pushed the envelope by using the free office space, etc, supplied by the Westminster Parliament to its MPs. Each such move was assessed for the manner in which it could be justified in republican terms, and whether it would further alienate the dissident republicans peeling off from Sinn Fein and the stood-down IRA, into the “Real IRA” and “Continuity IRA”.
The symbolism of meeting the Queen is a little different — though Northern Ireland remains part of the UK, the very fact that Sinn Fein is in co-power gives it the sense of being a distinctive statelet — and there are numerous cross-border authorities that dissipate the sense of unitary authority. McGuinness and Sinn Fein can essentially spin the visit, as if he’s meeting a visiting head of a foreign state.
For Maj, it must be a bit tougher. Today, she visited Enniskillen, the scene of the 1987 IRA Remembrance Day bombing, which killed 11 civilians, and that marked the virtual end of the IRA’s bombing campaign in Northern Ireland. That is grisly enough, but McGuinness could fairly have plenty of grievance against the British state, but is too smart to bear it against the Queen personally. She, on the other hand, has to deal with the fact that McGuinness’ outfit killed her uncle by marriage, Lord Mountbatten, a man to whom she was said to be close.
McGuinness’ official story is that he was a member of the (then Provisional) IRA until 1974, but then left the organisation, and was active only in legitimate parliamentary activity from the ’80s onwards. No one believes this for a second, and any TV interview with McGuinness proceeds at a glacial pace, as he takes a long pause so as not to get tangled in his answer. That procedure has created a sort of icy Irish chutzpah, which has been well on display today — with his remark that “like us, the Queen has lost people close to her”. Wow.
Why has Sinn Fein been so willing to make a quarrel with those harder republicans still loyal to it, by meeting Maj? A year ago, they were demonstrating against her visit to the Irish Republic. What’s changed? The answer, of course, is the side of the border they’re on. Sinn Fein is committing itself substantially to a southern strategy. Martin McGuinness ran for President in the 2011 Republic elections, and gained 13.7% of the vote, while Sinn Fein gained 10% of the vote in the Dail — both disappointing results, but an advance on their previous showing.
Having abandoned the strategy of the “ArmaLite and the ballot box” in the ’90s — a strategy they had been disengaging from for more than a decade, with some spectacular exceptions — the strategy of Sinn Fein has been to slowly accumulate legitimacy on both sides of the border, and hope that demographic shift will allow them to run a dual referendum and reunite the island of Ireland. Sinn Fein has consistently outplayed its opponents, its strategy honed from decades of intensive study of the Irish experience, of history, and political theory. Its Unionist opponents have maintained a steadfast anti-intellectualism (in the Maze, the IRA prisoners started libraries; the Unionist prisoners started gyms).
But the paradox is that Sinn Fein’s slow march to victory is coming precisely because it has started to mean rather less than it did. Sinn Fein has inserted itself into the technocratic management of Northern Ireland, and in the south has decisively abandoned its socialist, anti-imperialist politics to move fast towards the centre. Its aim there is to pick off Fianna Fail, now fatally wounded by its responsibility for the extinction of the Celtic Tiger. SF would then be one of the three major parties, eligible for being part of a governing coalition. Meeting the Queen is a play to the south not the north — Sinn Fein at its cleverest, perhaps too clever by half.
It would not be amiss for many of the party’s supporters to ask — “and what do you do?”