In the midst of the controversy surrounding the historic meeting and handshake between Prince Charles and Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams last week, I reached out to one of my Belfast friends, a steadfast supporter of Adams and the party he has led since 1986, to get his take on what, if anything, it all meant.
My friend has long argued to me the virtues of Sinn Fein’s “long game” of transition from armed struggle to “ordinary” politics as the surest path to achieving a united Ireland. A key part of this long game requires that the party not stay shackled to a past in which violence and bloodshed was the currency of both revolution and state reaction.
My friend wrote:
We can’t strangulate ourselves with the past, while I couldn’t shake his hand, I understood why Gerry accepted his handshake. A new Ireland will only be achieved when we take big steps, such as this.
And he’s right. Reconciliation with the past, and with past foes, requires a willingness to take risks, even if those risks are today less immediate than they might have been twenty years ago. Reconciliation requires, as my friend pointed out, an acknowledgment of the suffering inflicted by and upon all sides of an armed conflict. This was, apparently, among the things that Adams and Charles discussed during a short private meeting.
Adams himself, in an interview with BBC Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster program, placed his meeting with Prince Charles squarely in the reconciliation column. You can read a full transcript of the interview here, but this is the money quote:
… we, I think, had a common view that there should be no hierarchy [of victims] and that thankfully, the conflict’s over. But all of those victims and survivors of the conflict who still seek justice need to have that justice. And if our meeting yesterday did anything I would like to think it assisted this process. And the governments and the political parties, I think, are duty-bound to build upon that because reconciliation is — it’s a personal process, I suppose, of dialogue and engagement and compromise and getting to know someone.
Sinn Fein’s critics, both north and south of the Irish border, and Republican dissidents have sung from their familiar hymnals, challenging the sincerity of Adams’ meeting with the heir to the British throne and characterizing it variously as cynical political posturing, a hypocritical about face on whether the Royal Family is welcome in Ireland, and yet another in a seemingly infinite line of betrayals and subversions of traditional Republicanism.
But there’s another criticism worth thinking about, and it gets to the heart of what reconciliation is, and what it isn’t. Adams himself alludes to it. Reconciliation is indeed personal, but it will not come about if it amounts to no more than occasional symbolic meetings between high-profile public figures. As Eamonn McCann writes in the pages of the Belfast Telegraph:
We do not have to hold the royals in high regard to make peace with our neighbours. Most of us have never been at war with them in the first place. The consolidation of peace can only be achieved by plain people making common cause across national and religious divides. That is to say, on the basis of proclaiming that it’s the people who must be sovereign.
There have been plenty of handshakes in recent years, but the hard work of actual reconciliation in Northern Ireland will be the work of generations. Some of this is taking place, both on individual and private levels and on officially supported and institutional ones, but the pace of progress can seem glacial in a place where people more readily see their differences than their similarities.
In short, symbolic gestures notwithstanding, there’s still a long way to go.