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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Liam Clarke, Irish America

Sinn Féin's royal rhetoric could backfire

(by Liam Clarke, Sunday Times)

I'm not a royalist by inclination. I instinctively recoil from the pomp and deference that surround hereditary privilege, but you don't have to be a monarchist to welcome a state visit by the Queen to Dublin, it being a positive moment in the history of the two countries.

The visit is another practical example of British/Irish solidarity, the Good Friday agreement and the recent £7 billion (¤8.2 billion) loan by Britain to Ireland being the most obvious. The countries do more business with each other than either of them does with Brazil, Russia, India and China put together. They have a joint interest in managing Northern Ireland, and share comprehensive cultural, sporting and linguistic links.

Sinn Féin is the only big political party opposed to the expected visit of the Queen to Dublin in May. This position could prove a political liability.

A century ago, George V was the last reigning British monarch to visit the south – and he was greeted by a Cead Mile Failte headline on the front of the Irish Times – yet Gerry Adams thinks that a visit by his granddaughter is still "premature".

The Sinn Féin president suggests the historic gesture shouldn't happen until after a British withdrawal from Ireland. That used to be what he said about an IRA ceasefire and taking seats in the Dáil. Having moved from all such positions, not to mention having the title Baron Northstead thrust upon him as the price of resigning as a Westminster MP, there is not a lot of logic in his continuing opposition to a royal visit.

He has met prime ministers, British civil servants and police chiefs whose role in exercising "British jurisdiction in Ireland", as he puts it, is real and direct. What is so different about the Queen, whose main role is to preside at state functions and rubber-stamp government decisions? Presumably there is an electoral calculation involved. Sinn Féin is good at those, but, to a casual observer, Adams appears to be out of touch with public opinion on this issue, and not just in the south. When the BBC did a vox pop in his former West Belfast constituency, most people either supported the visit or couldn't care less. One man said dismissively that he would have nothing to do with royalty, but significantly didn't call for protest.

In the north, Sinn Féin's touchiness about royal occasions has become something of a liability. For instance, last week Peter Robinson, the DUP first minister, attended the reopening of St Malachy's church, which had undergone a £3.5m restoration, in the strongly nationalist Markets area of Belfast. He was hosted by Martin Graham, a curate, and applauded by a crowd when he left.

Why was he not accompanied, or replaced, by Martin McGuinness, the deputy first minister whose party gets a lot of votes in the Markets and who is a practising Catholic? No doubt he would plead a diary commitment, but the fact is that McGuinness could not have attended, even if he had been free all day, because Prince Charles was also there. The prince was a guest of Fr Graham, who chatted to him about the church's architecture and plaster work. Charles was also applauded when he left.

Something similar happened last year when the Pope was received in Scotland by the Queen. Both Robinson and McGuinness were invited as representatives of Northern Ireland, but neither could make it. They pleaded an appointment with Mammon – the opening of a New York Stock Exchange office in Belfast.

However, the suspicion lingers that McGuinness didn't go because it would have meant meeting the Queen, and Robinson, a born-again Protestant, stayed away because he didn't want to encounter the Pope.

Many DUP members decline to attend Catholic funerals, citing theological reservations about the doctrine of transubstantiation. It sounds contrived and less than neighbourly; more what you might expect from a member of an obscure protest group on the wilder fringes of fundamentalism, not from an elected leader with civic responsibilities.

Robinson has tried to chip away at the issue, for instance in his visit to St Malachy's and meeting Cardinal Seán Brady.

Sinn Féin's difficulty with royalty will feature in the forthcoming Stormont and council elections in May and be cited as a reason for unionists to vote DUP. The positions of first and deputy first minister at Stormont are equivalent in all but name, but the largest party gets to pick the first minister. It is within the bounds of possibility that if enough nationalists vote Sinn Féin instead of SDLP, and enough unionists vote for parties other than the DUP, McGuinness could end up as first minister and Robinson as deputy.

DUP canvassers are already polishing up lines for use on the doorstep to the effect that Sinn Féin would "let Northern Ireland down" by snubbing a royal if they got the chance. The wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton is on April 29, six days before the Assembly election. Robinson will attend, providing his party with an opportunity to point out that McGuinness wouldn't go if he were first minister and that a vote for anyone other than the DUP increases the risk of that happening. It will probably help swing some floating voters from the UUP to DUP. Any sort of physical opposition by Sinn Féin to the Queen's visit to Dublin, especially if, as predicted, it happens in May, could also benefit the DUP in the northern elections.

The effect on nationalists would be more marginal. However, there are indications – in the applause of the crowd at the Markets and the positive reception when Margaret Ritchie, the SDLP leader, wore a poppy – that if Sinn Féin translates its anti-royalist sentiments into protests, it won't be a vote-winner. Northern nationalists were horrified by unionist protests at visits north in the 1990s by presidents Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese and they don't want to be associated with the same sort of carry-on every time the Queen appears. Presidential visits to the north now pass off without much comment, and that is regarded as progress by most people.

On the level of symbolism, which is what the British aristocracy excels at, the offer and acceptance of a visit by the Queen could draw a thick line under the conflicts of the last century. If it passes off peacefully, it will be a sign that Ireland is secure enough in its independence and nationhood to accept the head of the former colonial power as just another foreign dignitary from a neighbouring country.

It would send out a powerful message to the world if the Irish republic, which fought for independence from Britain, can let the visit pass in the same way as it would in America, another republic that fought a similar struggle.

February 14, 2011
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This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on February 13, 2011.

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