Hopefully, the handshake between Martin McGuinness and the Queen in Belfast will be fondly remembered by future generations as an event which opened up Northern Ireland to togetherness, reconciliation and most importantly, lasting peace - says Irish blogger
It is a core part of our culture and we do it almost every day. Yet the mere ubiquity of the handshake sometimes conceals its incredible power and symbolism. It is not just a means for a relaxing introduction - it allows the participants an air of understanding, warmth and peace. On the world stage, a handshake transcends moral and ideological boundaries. It is a powerful symbol of affinity.
Throughout history, we look back fondly on those famous handshakes, the ones we believed would never happen. Whether it was Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev and United States President Ronald Reagan in 1985, or Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1999 - the importance of the handshake is inescapable. Even on the sporting field, ferocious controversy erupted between two footballers when Luis Suarez failed to shake Patrice Evra's hand at the height of a racism row in February. A further interesting example of the power of shaking hands, or the lack of shaking hands in this case. Another one of those famous international handshakes occurred on July 27, 2012.
Martin McGuinness was an Irish Republic Army commander during the 1970s. Today, he holds the title of Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. The Sinn Féin politician ended weeks of speculation last week by confirming he would meet with Queen Elizabeth II during her jubilee visit to Northern Ireland. The Queen's state visit to the Republic of Ireland last year, for the first time in a century, was very well received and proved a historic benchmark in relations between the Irish Republic and the United Kingdom. Martin McGuinness was not there, however. Up until now, Sinn Féin boycotted all events involving the British royal family.
Therefore, the successful meeting is hugely significant. The Troubles in Northern Ireland have been characterised by intense violence, discrimination, political symbolism and a distinct lack of communication. The coming together of McGuinness, former commander of the Provisional IRA and Queen Elizabeth, who holds the title of head of the British armed forces is a monumental occurrence. If last year's state visit represented the 'normalisation' of relations between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, the meeting between McGuinness and the Queen has showcased Sinn Féin's transformation; an evolution in Irish Republicanism and a further step forward in the peace process.
The historic handshake occurred in the Lyric Theatre, in Belfast. McGuinness greeted both the Queen and Irish President Michael D. Higgins, in Irish. He spoke about the need to acknowledge the pain of all victims of the Troubles as well as their families. He also reflected on the significance of the visit and the necessity to build upon it in the years ahead. There were fears the meeting would prove difficult – bitter memories of the conflict in Northern Ireland still resonate. The royal family experienced the Troubles first-hand in 1979 - when Lord Louis Mountbatten, Earl of Burma, was assassinated on his fishing boat off the Irish coast by the IRA. He was a cousin of the Queen and Prince Philipp's uncle.
According to the Irish Times
, McGuinness had not planned to make reference to that particular incident. He explained: "I represent people who have been terribly hurt by British state violence over many years. I also recognise I am going to meet someone who has also been hurt as a result of the conflict, and someone who is very conscious that in many homes in Britain there are parents, wives, children, brothers and sisters of British soldiers who were sent here who lost their lives in the conflict."
It certainly seems that this positive attitude towards reconciliation was reflected in the handshake. McGuinness may have surprised some observers by addressing the Queen in Irish. He made it clear before the meeting that he is no fan of "grandiose titles" and would refuse to address the monarch as "Your Majesty". Perhaps, adopting the Irish language provided him with an easy escape route from this potentially difficult situation. Lagan Valley Democratic Unionist Party MP Jeffrey Donaldson expressed his view that meeting the Queen was tantamount to recognising her as the legitimate head of state. McGuinness refuted this point, reaffirming his recognition of Irish President Michael D. Higgins.
The Irish President played an important part in arranging the handshake and Michael D. Higgins praised the "warm" meeting with the Queen. He also conveyed his wish to build further on Anglo-Irish relations, explaining that the meeting was "another important step on the journey to reconciliation on this island". So, where will the meeting between the Queen and Martin McGuinness rank on 'the international handshake scale?' Statistics certainly show that the relationship between China and the United States
improved immeasurably when Richard Nixon shook hands with Mao Zedong in 1972. In 1990, Nelson Mandela and President F.W. de Klerk shook hands in Cape Town, South Africa, which proved to be the beginning of the end of white minority rule in that country. Hopefully, the handshake in Belfast will be fondly remembered by future generations as an event which opened Northern Ireland to togetherness, reconciliation and most importantly, lasting peace. Seamus Murphy is a blogger on The Trenditionist website