The war is over. And nobody won
The ‘symbolic’ handshake between the queen and the former IRA chief is a meeting of the ghosts of British imperialism and Irish republicanism.
Everybody agrees that the meeting between Her Majesty the Queen and Martin McGuinness, the IRA commander-turned-deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, is heavily ‘symbolic’. But what exactly does it symbolise?
In all of the media fuss about the planned handshake behind closed doors, a key word has been ‘reconciliation’. That rather gives the game away. Because there could never be reconciliation between Irish republicanism and the British Crown. They are, by definition, mortal enemies whose hands belong around one another’s throat. The handshake between the queen and McGuinness must be symbolic of something else: the fact that neither the unionist British Establishment nor the Irish republican movement still exists in its historic form. It is a meeting of ghosts – the ghost of British imperialism and that of Irish republicanism.
For 200 years, from the United Irishmen’s rebellion of 1798 (a rising inspired by the American and French revolutions), the British Crown and Irish republicanism fought an intermittent war over the indivisible issue of national sovereignty. The question was not who was to shake whose hand, but who was to rule? In the twentieth century the conflict between the Crown and the republican movement exploded into war through the Easter Rising of 1916, the War of Independence (1919-21), which ended in the partition of Ireland and the incorporation of Northern Ireland into the United Kingdom, and finally ‘the Troubles’ which began in 1969 and formally ended with the Good Friday agreement of 1998.
McGuinness’s first significant meeting with the British authorities happened in 1972, at the height of the Troubles after Bloody Sunday, when he and other IRA leaders attended secret talks with the Tory government in London. But no deal was possible at that time. The fact that the modern IRA’s war to drive the British state out of Northern Ireland was fought within the borders of the United Kingdom made it unlike any colonial conflict in Africa or Asia. The British establishment could not compromise on the issue of sovereignty within its state without risking its overall authority and control. So the low-intensity war in Northern Ireland continued for a quarter-century, punctuated by sporadic IRA ‘spectaculars’ such as a bombing in Britain or the killing of Lord Louis Mountbatten, the queen’s husband’s uncle, and 18 paratroopers on the same day in August 1979.
That war is now well and truly over. The Irish republican movement, represented by the IRA and Sinn Fein, was effectively defeated by a combination of its own political weakness and isolation, and the international climate created after the end of the Cold War. Sinn Fein has since moved into mainstream Irish politics, becoming the major party among Northern Ireland’s Catholic nationalist community, with McGuinness as the deputy first minister of the province – serving alongside Sinn Fein’s old enemies in the Democratic Unionist Party set up by the Reverend Ian Paisley. Yet it has done so by abandoning in all but name the historic goal of republicanism – a united Ireland free from British influence.
In the words of one hostile local commentator this week, the aim of McGuinness and his movement has been downgraded from ‘Brits Out’ to ‘Sinn Fein in’. As this Unionist pundit put it, the republicans have not only abandoned the armed struggle, but made their peace with almost every idea and institution they once waged war against: ‘Sinn Fein is now in Stormont, Westminster and the Dail [Irish parliament]. It has accepted an internal settlement and the border separating the UK from the rest of Ireland. It co-governs with the DUP. It has stood down the IRA and the Army Council. It has decommissioned the arsenals. It has accepted a local police force. It has accepted the criminal justice system…. [O]ther than moving into Buckingham Palace and curling up like an old green corgi at the foot of the Queen’s bed, I’m not sure how much more Sinn Fein could do to indicate that their war has been lost and the surrender terms penned by the British.’
Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland has transmogrified from a nationalist movement that claimed to be the legitimate political voice of all the Irish people into a local party defending the interests and ‘cultural identity’ of the Catholic minority within a province of the United Kingdom. When the queen came to Northern Ireland to mark her Silver Jubilee in 1977, she was greeted with large-scale riots in nationalist areas and republican banners declaring her to be the ‘Queen of Death’. As she goes back now to mark her Diamond Jubilee, she is met by a handshake from the former IRA commander who says, ‘This is about stretching out the hand of peace and reconciliation to Queen Elizabeth who represents hundreds of thousands of Unionists in the north. It is about me representing my party, wishing to show the Unionist people in the north that we are prepared to respect what they believe in, albeit that we are still Irish republicans.’ From riots and republicanism to talk of reconciliation with the Crown and respect for Unionism, Sinn Fein has changed even more than the monarchy over the past 35 years.
Thus the meeting between Her Majesty and Martin McGuinness can be seen as ‘symbolic’ of the defeat of Irish republicanism, a sign that it no longer poses a mortal threat to the British Crown. But with the odd exception, such as the pundit cited above, there is little sign of triumphalism on the other side, either.
Ulster Unionism has lost its traditional political bearings as badly as Irish republicanism. The DUP now shares government, after all, with those whom it condemned as mass murderers, a movement it was created in order to crush. This turnaround was strikingly and bizarrely illustrated by the unlikely double act of McGuinness and Paisley before the latter’s retirement as First Minister, which included a jolly joint appearance at the opening of an IKEA store.
The British state, too, is a shadow of its former powerful self, not only forced to abandon most of its imperialist pretensions to bestride the world, but also having to cope with the undermining of its authority and unity at home.
As a result, the defeat of Irish republicanism has not been mirrored by the triumph of its traditional enemies. Instead of rule by the Empire or the Unionists of old, Northern Ireland now labours under a system of government-by-peace-process. As with post-Cold War peace processes elsewhere in the world, the process is all, a neverending system of compromises and bureaucracy without conclusion. For around 15 years this undemocratic system of government has helped to reinforce divisions between the competing ‘cultural identities’ in Northern Ireland.
Where the long war between the British state and the IRA was punctuated by symbolic ‘spectaculars’, the unending peace process has to be periodically invigorated with symbolic turns of its own, to maintain the appearance of progress and dynamism. Hence the media obsession with the empty ‘symbolism’ of every stage-managed event since Tony Blair’s talk of the ‘hand of history’ on Good Friday 1998 – most recently around the queen’s first visit to the Republic of Ireland last year, and now her uncomfortable (gloved?) handshake with the man who reputedly commanded the IRA when they blew up her favourite uncle.
The meeting between the queen and McGuinness is an obvious symbol that the Irish War is long over. Given that she returns there as reigning sovereign of Northern Ireland, and that the Union Flag still waves over Stormont Castle, it also seems clear that the republican movement was the biggest loser. But this is a war that nobody has won – least of all the peoples of Northern Ireland.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His new book There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… And We Need One More Than Ever will be published by Imprint Academic this Autumn. (Pre-order this book from Amazon(UK).)