In the Irish Times, Patrick Smyth rains on “this national parade, The Handshake-fest”.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not to say that The Handshake was not a “good thing”. It was. Belatedly, 14 years after the genuinely “historic” Belfast Agreement was signed, marking not only Sinn Féin’s renunciation of coercion as a means of uniting Ireland but also, crucially, a new set of relationships on and between these islands, the party takes another incremental step down that road. Masters at PR and branding, Sinn Féin dresses The Handshake up as a breakthrough and statesmanship of a high order. “Historic” because Sinn Féin says it is. I don’t think so.
The Handshake acquires major significance only if we accept that somehow Martin McGuinness represents through his act the spirit of the Irish nation, or even of Irish nationalism. That he speaks for us more truly than, say President Michael D Higgins, for whom the same handshake is a matter of course, is barely worth commenting on. Or that The Handshake is a great symbolic moment of reconciliation between peoples, perhaps like that genuinely represented by the queen’s visit to Ireland last year.
Instead of being what it is in reality: an attempt by a minority current of nationalism to shake off its still-clinging violent past and a branding of itself both as nationalism’s embodiment and as a “respectable” potential party of government.
Oh yes, and a “reaching out” to unionism, which is still, unsurprisingly, unconvinced.
In this it is ably assisted by a compliant, uncritical press and punditocracy and by a British establishment only delighted to promote the idea of an important, healing, uniting monarchy.
It is the inevitable expression of a peace process culture that privileges Sinn Féin above all parties, wrapping the supposedly tender plant of its new constitutionalism in cotton wool, as if it was at any moment ready to revert to its bad old ways.
Yet do we really believe that if The Handshake had not happened this week the well-entrenched political dynamic in the North would have been altered by one iota?
“An important symbolic addition to the iconography of reconciliation on this island and between Ireland and Britain,” this paper’s leader suggested.
“Ho, hum,” as former editor Douglas Gageby used to say to express scepticism.