Thursday, 28 June 2012

A handshake marks the end of some things, the continuation of others

When it comes to historic handshakes, it wasn’t right up there with the best of them – one thinks of the Bill Clinton-sponsored greeting between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, for instance – but even so something important happened when the Queen shook Martin McGuinness’s hand yesterday.

It was all so laden with significance. 

On the one hand, an anachronism symbolic of our times: a former leader of a terrorist organisation. But this one has laid aside the gun for good to embrace the opportunity of pursuing a political career (and is proving rather good at it). 

On the other hand, another anachronism symbolic of our times: a head of state who owes her position to birth alone. Sadly, she provides a fittingly reflection of the desire of a substantial majority of British people to be treated as subjects, not citizens.

A historic moment.
And she was in green. Is she a secret Republican?
Still, the Queen and McGuinness represented former adversaries – actually, former enemies – and by shaking hands they signalled the commitment of everyone involved to settle their differences peacefully in future. That is massively significant.

In addition, however, I’m also enthusiastic about how this event shows up those who make absurd claims along the lines of ‘we never talk to terrorists.’ Michelle Bachmann (remember her? she used to be quite prominent in US politics) said it last October, tackling Ron Paul (remember him? he had a brief moment of minor celebrity too): ‘We have an absolute policy: we don't negotiate with terrorists’.

The position is nonsense because the people it most makes sense to talk to are your enemies. You can talk to your friends any time, and there’s a real chance that you’ll all agree, but you won’t be a jot further forward. If you want a breakthrough, it has to be across the table from the people who would otherwise be trying to shoot you.

The policy of refusing to talk reached its zenith of stupidity under Thatcher in 1988 (something to remember when people wax nostalgic about her).

In an attempt to ‘starve the terrorist and the hijacker of the oxygen of publicity on which they depend’ Thatcher brought in regulations to prevent Sinn Feinn leaders’ voices being heard on broadcast media. Unfortunately, since the only way we were ever going to make progress in Northern Ireland was by finding common ground with Sinn Fein, what they had to say was of particular interest to the public.

So we had the glorious sight of Irish republicans being interviewed on British TV, their lips visibly moving, their expressions changing, their body language fluent, but their voices silenced. Only their voices. We could hear their words – just not spoken by them. Instead, actors would read out the words, precisely the same words the Sinn Feiners had used.

Political censorship is generally poisonous. But when all that’s being censored is the voice, not the words, then it becomes ludicrous too.

Come to think of it, a measure that was both poisonous and ridiculous sounds like an entirely fitting monument to the Thatcher government.

That we had a handshake yesterday to seal the end of the bloodshed and the misery is hugely important. Historic. But will it also end the kind of childishness in government that led to Gerry Adams’ words being pronounced by an actor? When Tony Blair announces he’d like to be Prime Minister again, it’s quite obvious that delusions among politicians are not about to melt away.

But that's just as well. Think of all the opportunities for entertainment we’d lose. Let’s be grateful for the occasional historic handshake. But let’s also be grateful when the clowns do something to laugh at. After all, they already give us plenty to weep over.

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