I'm not the Queen - making my non-regal status clear

 

It's not quite as historic as Wednesday's meeting between the Queen and the deputy first minister.

But last week was a first - the first time in which I have felt the need to clarify my non-regal status in the middle of a news conference.

I was questioning Gerry Adams about whether the two principals would shake hands when they meet at an arts event in Belfast, and he pointed out that he and I had shaken hands on many occasions.

"But I'm not the Queen" I pointed out. Amidst the general laughter, Gerry Adams decided it best not to say anything more about my Queen-like qualities.

Over the weekend some republicans, including victims of state violence, demonstrated in Belfast against the Sinn Fein initiative. Linda Nash, whose brother William was killed on Bloody Sunday, was particularly forthright in her condemnation of the deputy first minister.

"Does Martin forget that the Queen decorated the Parachute Regiment and that they remain decorated?" she asked.

"Can you sleep at night having given orders to young Irish men and women to attack the Queen´s forces when many of these men, women and teenagers were then murdered? I hope you are happy with your new found friends Martin. For they are the employers of the men who murdered our loved ones. Your actions, in my opinion, are traitorous."

Gerry Adams didn't respond to that last taunt, which seemed to deliberately echo Martin McGuinness's description of the dissidents as "traitors to the people of Ireland".

But speaking on Inside Politics the Sinn Fein president said that whilst he didn't have an awful lot of time for those who are anti peace process and support violent "micro groups", he did have a huge amount of time for others who are perfectly entitled to disagree with Sinn Fein's decision. He expressed his respect for all those who have suffered and said he had tried to meet with any victims of state violence to explain Sinn Fein's thinking.

In expressing the hope that Wednesday's meeting will move the political process into a "new phase", Gerry Adams asked "how could anyone conceivably not talk to each other" after such a demonstration that republicans were willing to move beyond their standard rhetoric.

This sounds like a challenge to the Orange Order, whose Grand Lodge policy remains not to engage in dialogue with Sinn Fein. When Edward Stevenson was elected as grand master last year he reaffirmed the policy explaining that "one in 10 victims of the Troubles were members of the Orange Order but Sinn Fein have never said sorry to them, nor have they shown any remorse, and until that happens I will not engage with them."

But with the monarch whom the Orange Order reveres meeting Martin McGuinness and speculation about a fresh IRA apology, perhaps at the end of July, could the ground on which the Order stands be shifting?

In a speech to a Sinn Fein west Belfast selection convention, Gerry Adams talked about assuring unionists that republicans are willing "to try and understand what unionists mean by their sense of Britishness and we have committed to finding ways of accommodating this in a new Republic".

Quite what this means is unclear. I questioned Gerry Adams on Inside Politics about whether Sinn Fein was looking to take a leaf out of the Scottish National Party's book, given Alex Salmond's declaration that Scotland can be independent and retain the royal family.

Whilst the Sinn Fein president declared himself in favour of a socialist republic, he said a future role for the Queen after Irish unification should be talked about. However, he rejected Eamon O'Cuiv's idea that one way forward would be for Ireland, like other Republics, to join the Commonwealth.

This may all be interesting crystal ball gazing for those long meetings between Declan Kearney, Harold Good et al. But unionist politicians will point out that the persuasion process Sinn Fein is so keen on appears to be moving in reverse gear, with surveys showing increasing numbers of Catholics relaxed about or supportive of remaining in the UK.

However, Sinn Fein aren't going to drop their "national reconciliation" process any time soon. After all, it provides the logic for their assertion that they, not the dissidents, are the ones really driving the all-Ireland agenda.

If this week's meeting could be an impetus for further dialogue between Sinn Fein and the unionists, one might assume it would hamper the chances of talks with the dissidents. Although one group, the Republican Network for Unity, has responded positively to Martin McGuinness's offer of talks, there's still no sign of a date or agenda for any discussions. With so many dissident factions, some of whom have already rejected Sinn Fein's proposal, it would be wise not to expect too much from this initiative.

Nevertheless, with the height of the marching season just weeks away, any dialogue is probably better than none.

 
Mark Devenport, Political editor, Northern Ireland Article written by Mark Devenport Mark Devenport Political editor, Northern Ireland

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