Sinn Féin and the handshake
Anne McShane reports on the latest step in the 'peace process'
The June 27 ‘groundbreaking’ meeting between Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness and Elizabeth II produced a range of emotions among establishment and republican forces in the north and south of Ireland.
In the south the government has tried hard to talk down the event, with Fine Gael minister Brian Hayes declaring that Sinn Féin is “hyping” a “very minor” event as part of a “cheap little media game”. The Irish Independent - a Fine Gael paper - raged against the effrontery of McGuinness, arguing that the event was simply a cynical move to divert attention from the alleged misdemeanours of his party’s TDs in the Dáil. The same publication gave Hayes centre-stage to accuse RTE, the national TV station, of pandering to republicanism. The Independent has historically been a vitriolic opponent of republicanism, famously calling for the shooting of the 1916 leaders and dismissing that year’s uprising as “criminal and insane”. Sinn Féin is regarded as some kind of satanic force.
The public handshake of the former IRA leader with the commander in chief of the British military has also provoked anger within republican ranks. At a commemoration ceremony at Crossmaglen on June 24, former Provisional IRA founder Laurence O’Neill denounced McGuinness as “a Judas” and said he should “hang his head in shame” for meeting the queen while Northern Ireland remained under British rule. McGuinness had sold out those who had lost their lives in the struggle for Irish freedom and was now “shaking the paw of the queen of England as a guarantee that will see her dream come true of Ireland remaining a cosy, peaceful colony”.
It shocks many republicans that the organisation which fought for the military overthrow of the Northern Ireland part of the United Kingdom now seems prepared to embrace that state. The occupation of the north has witnessed the systematic repression of the Catholic minority. The history is a grim one, with the British ruling class trying out many of its most brutal military devices and legislative acts in Ireland. It can be remembered for detention without trial, sensory deprivation torture, heavily armed policing and ‘shoot to kill’. And tactics used to police demonstrations of students and trade unionists today in Britain originated on the streets of Belfast and Derry.
Gerry Adams defended the decision with a declaration that we “don’t have to do it. We’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do, despite the fact that it will cause difficulties for our own folk.” The SF leadership apparently made the decision after four hours of debate, with a significant minority voting against. It will be interesting to see if there is any fallout within the organisation itself. There are continuing and significant tensions in SF north and south, which are bound to find expression as the leadership continues to exert pressure to the right.
Adams was playing the statesman. He hailed the occasion as a good day for the people of Ireland, while admitting that “some people in the north - especially in my own home district of Ballymurphy - who are big supporters of the peace process are hurt”. However, the views of oppositionists within the Catholic working class in the north come a poor second to the ambitions of McGuinness and Adams, who nowadays emphasise the importance of ‘governments working together’. Of course, Sinn Féin is in government in the north. It now sees an opportunity to advance the project of becoming a governing party in the south too.
Last year SF staged a boycott of the queen’s visit to the south. Rumours circulate that on reflection the leadership concluded that this was a mistake. They decided that national opinion was not with them and they had appeared rather churlish in refusing to take part in the ceremonies. Loss of popular support would not be risked again. Months of ‘sensitive’ tick-tacking went on behind the scenes, culminating in Wednesday’s handshake. There is, of course, nothing wrong with leaders of popular movements engaging in diplomacy with representatives of the oppressor - which obviously will include exchanging formal greetings and so on - but for many that moment symbolised Sinn Féin’s transformation from a movement of national emancipation to one of accommodation and insinuation into the political establishment.
There are important historical parallels. In 1916 Éamonn de Valera was a military leader in the Irish Republican Brotherhood. He was a military commander, as McGuinness once was in the IRA. In 1921 de Valera refused to accept partition and went on to lead the civil war against the newly formed pro-treaty government under Michael Collins. Fianna Fáil was formed in 1926 as the party to continue the heritage of 1916 and the civil war. The name is usually translated as ‘Soldiers of Destiny’. It was committed to a democratic united Ireland, free of corruption - an aim not unlike that of today’s Sinn Féin.
The first Fianna Fáil government was formed in 1932 and held power for 61 out of 80 years. I have written often about the experience of living under this government. Its support for the Catholic church and disdain for the working class have been its hallmarks - along with its greed and corruption. It became the sworn enemy of the new republican movement which arose in the 1970s and 1980s, leading a crusade of intimidation against southern supporters of the IRA.
Today Sinn Féin is in government in the north. There it presides over austerity and cuts in public services. It is clearly an enemy of the northern working class. There should be no illusions that SF will do anything different in the south. Adams wants to replace Fianna Fáil as the republican party of the establishment. In the north the leadership is appealing to unionists by welcoming the queen. He and McGuinness want this to be the new ruling party north and south.
Ditching a few principles is a price worth paying for power.