- No right-minded republican in Britain would ever meet the queen without a placard and a megaphone. - Maev McDaid & Brian Christopher
When the TPQ commenter DaithiD came up with the potent phrase Victory to the Banquet men in reference to Sinn Fein supping with the British queen the sagacity of Anatole France took hold: ‘when a thing has been said and well, have no scruple. Take it and copy it.’ DaithiD with a brevity of words, crystallised like no other the vastness of the terrain covered by Sinn Fein in its long journey away from the republicanism that had previously spurred it and into its own brand of partitionist reformism. The contrasting images of banquet men and blanket men could hardly have been starker. It also came in week laden with a symbolism that reinforced the trend: former blanket man Leo Green is taking Sinn Fein to an industrial tribunal for unfair dismissal at the hands of the banquet men.
Martin McGuinness has met the British queen before. He has met many British officials in his long career as Sinn Fein politician and member of the IRA’s army council. Meeting senior British officials is all in a day’s work for him. It doesn’t make him a tout as many of his critics allege, but someone who has been thoroughly constitutionalised and deradicalised at each step of the way, whatever his intentions at the outset.
His reason for hobnobbing with British royalty is anything but ‘a sincere gesture of reconciliation and respect towards our unionist neighbours.’ It is more driven by the search for respectability in the South and the concomitant pot of office that lies at the end of an electoral rainbow. McGuinness went hoping to be seen by the Southern electorate accompanying President Higgins rather than First Minister Robinson. Sinn Fein, chameleon like, will assume every colour in the rainbow to get office and crown (not even a pun) its current status as an intrinsic part of the political establishment.
Talk of reconciliation sits awkwardly against the churlish demeanour of unionism, annoyed that McGuinness turned up and was allowed to dine rather than being whisked off to the tower. It fails to appreciate the irony in the spectacle of the man of whom it was once said, ‘no other living person is a greater threat to the British State’, emasculated and served up in bowtie-and-tails as a eunuch to the royal harem.
Yet unionist lemon sucking hardly allows Sinn Fein to claim sweet intent. If Sinn Fein truly sought to reconcile with the unionist community it would cease continuing to cover up for events like the Derry killing of Joanne Mathers in April 1981 or the Kingsmill massacre in 1976, both actions carried out by the IRA at a time when McGuinness was a key figure in the organisation.
Despite the criticism of republican critics it makes electoral - although not radical - sense in terms of Leinster House for Sinn Fein to meet the British queen in a climate where the electorate seems enthusiastic to embrace once heretical protocols, and consign, a la the Latin Mass, to the ancien régime anti-royalty concepts once championed by Irish nationalism. Sinn Fein senses that being fit for office is compromised by its long history of anti-officialdom. It wants to both embrace and be embraced by all it had previously sought to destroy. Having moved firmly into the shared Treatyite ground long occupied by Fianna Fail, Labour and Fine Gael, it is behaving exactly like them in relation to royalty and much else. In terms of its republicanism it is what John M Ford once termed 'locationally challenged.'
Whatever the merits from a reformist perspective, doing what everybody else is doing in the lurch for respectability is an exercise in dismantling a republican edifice. A reading of Jonathan Powell's Great Hatred Little Room illustrates that Sinn Fein’s peace process was for the British a fleece process through which it stripped the party of every republican asset it once claimed ownership of, boxed it into an internal solution, leaving it nowhere to go other than headlong into the reformist electoralism it had once reviled.
The Sinn Fein leadership is fortunate in that it has in its grassroots a tabula rasa, upon which it can write anything no matter how bizarre, in the certain knowledge that it will be learned by rote and regurgitated even when it spells volte face from whatever line was spouted yesterday. Few probably doubt that the Sinn Fein membership would eagerly fly the Union Jack from their homes if told by their leaders that it was helpful to the peace process, and even convince themselves that its three colours means they are still flying the tricolour. The same flag wavers would then be accusing those who did not fly the union flag of being anti peace process, living in the past, lacking comprehension of the bigger picture and all that.
The Provisional IRA by having one of its foremost figures appear in London achieved no Mandela moment. That’s just tripe served up for the sheeple. McGuinness the subject behaved exactly as a sovereign would want him to in the solemn setting of monarchical tradition. No chance of her wearing a balaclava in acknowledgement of his tradition.
Sinn Fein arrived suited and booted for a feast of stuffed quail and halibut in an act that was simultaneously mimicry of the establishment and mockery of its former self.
God Save the Queen.