Martin McGuiness, the deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and a former leader of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), a group that waged a terror campaign against the British government, its symbols of state and its citizens, shook hands yesterday with Queen Elizabeth. Twice.
It was more than a symbolic gesture. The Queen was shaking the hand of the man who was allegedly the chief of staff of the IRA's Army Council in the years it planned hundreds of operations, including the bombing, which murdered her favorite cousin Lord Louis Mountbatten in 1979 and the 1982 Hyde Park bombing, which killed four soldiers and seven horses of a royal Guards regiment. She was doing so, firstly, because the Queen doesn't get a say in who she shakes hands with - her government decides that. Secondly, and more importantly, the meeting took place because McGuiness, who spent most of his grown life denying the Queen's sovereignty over the province, is now a political leader, whose power emanates chiefly from London and Her Majesty's Government.
Some Republicans have attacked McGuiness for being a traitor to the cause; after all, his movement, Sinn Fein, still believes the six counties of Ulster must one day be reunited with the Republic of Ireland. McGuiness and four other Sinn Fein politicians are elected members of the parliament in London, but have never taken their seats there and remained absent from all its debates and votes. Last year, Sinn Fein members did not attend a reception for the Queen during her historic visit to Dublin. But the boycott seems to have harmed the party during the last Irish presidential elections. Most observers have interpreted yesterday's meeting as an attempt by McGuiness at damage control.
Fourteen years after the Good Friday agreement that ended "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland, the McGuiness royal handshake seems to seal the realization, for now, that the Republican mainstream is prepared to focus on its attempts to become the major political force in Ireland, north and south of the border. But that "for now" could be crucial in the future. There is still a clear sectarian divide between the Protestants and Catholics. While the large majority of Northern Irelanders are happy, according to polls, with the agreement that granted them a large degree of self-governance, demography is slowly changing the balance in the province and a generation from now, the Catholics will be a clear majority.
McGuiness' contemporaries decommissioned their "Army" when they realized that an armed struggle had no chance of forcing Britain out. Their grandchildren may feel they have a better chance against a weaker central government in London and reconsider strategy. But for now, there is peace in the land.
For decades it has been fashionable to compare between the conflict in Northern Ireland and the one between Israelis and Palestinians. By and large, this has been a facile comparison, useful mainly for gaining funding for "fact-finding" missions and joint seminars. It is true, both are territorial disputes with religious and ethnical undertones, in which both sides have often resorted to extreme violence. That's where the comparisons end.
And of course, since 1998, there has been peace, even if incomplete, in Northern Ireland. We are still waiting for peace to break out in this region. American Senator George Mitchell who played a pivotal role in the Good Friday process gave up as the Obama administration's peace envoy after only sixteen months.
In some ways, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in its current form does slightly resemble the Northern Ireland situation. For over five years there has been a lull in the fighting around the West Bank, thanks to cooperation between the security services of both sides and the refugee camps in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon have not served as staging-areas for cross-borders raids into Israel for decades. And although Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and other smaller groups in the Gaza Strip remain implacable enemies and still fire off missiles, to which Israel responds with aerial attacks, by and large, the standoff since Operation Cast Lead three and a half years ago has achieved a degree of stability. But all this is extremely temporary, while we sit on the powder-keg that could blow up into a third Intifada at nearly any moment. But we are no closer to an officially recognized peace deal, while the Good Friday agreement has lasted so far fourteen years and yesterday's handshake only reaffirmed it.
Besides, Israel's head of state and the Palestinian president met and shook hands nearly two decades ago, their names were Ezer Weizman and Yasser Arafat. Neither of them are around any longer and neither is the peace process.
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