What's in a handshake?
The media celebration of Sinn Fein politician Martin McGuinness' handshake with the Queen doesn't mean much to the majority of people, writes.
DON'T BELIEVE the hype. Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness's handshake with the Queen was not designed to bring us together, but to encourage us to live contentedly apart.
The rhetoric had no room for that sizeable section of the people who do not see themselves as unionists or nationalists, but who embrace a designation referring to some other aspect of their social being, or who are simply concerned to distance themselves from sectarian categorization.
There was no room for people who weren't buoyant with delight at the presence of the Queen, nor cheerfully accepting of it, nor angrily opposed to it, but whose dominant feeling was of irritation at the brouhaha. There was no room for the indifferent.
It was implicit in seemingly every broadcast and newspaper feature that the handshake symbolized reconciliation between "the two communities," the Protestant unionists represented by the British monarchy, the Catholic nationalists by Sinn Fein.
There are many in the North who did not need yesterday's handshake to reconcile them with their neighbors and who will have regarded the contrary assumption as somewhat insulting.
Every survey of attitudes indicates that up to a third of the people of Northern Ireland do not want to be allocated to either of "the two communities."
The fact that a high proportion of this section of the population don't vote--mainly because they see no point--allows commentators to suggest that they are not serious in declaring no allegiance to either of the dominant traditions, or that they may mean it when asked in an opinion poll, but when it comes to the crunch, in the secrecy of a ballot box, they come out as orange or green after all.
This is just the way things are, they assert, and evermore shall be so. But it is not the way things are, not always, or inevitably.
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ON NOVEMBER 30 last year, many thousands gathered together in Belfast, Derry and other towns to signal a determination to fight the austerity measures imposed by the Tory-led Government at Westminster. It will not have occurred to many, if any, as they stood shoulder-to-shoulder with neighbors from a different background, that they were engaged in an act of reconciliation.
The only occasions in our history when sizeable numbers of citizens have detached themselves from community background to make common cause have been occasions when they have come together to defend, or advance, their economic circumstances.
Most of those who take this line will have had no problem with the handshake. It's just that it had no relevance to and was a gaudy distraction from more urgent and important matters.
The main issues, which will determine whether people in the bottom half of society can look forward to a future in which their lives are not dominated by anxiety and apprehension about what lies ahead for their children, are the cuts in housing benefit, the destruction of jobs in the public sector, the effective wage cuts inflicted on many of the low paid and the withdrawal of services from working class communities. Yesterday's events had nothing to do with any of this.
It is this perspective, moreover, which holds out the most hope of our being able to confront difficult and potentially divisive issues without exacerbating division. The fact that the northern conference of the Irish Congress of Trades Unions was able, in April, to pass a motion calling for the release of Marian Price with scarcely a hint of communal antagonism in the hall is a case in point.
Still, it will be the conviction of many that the handshake will have helped to ease the tensions and rivalries which history has bequeathed us. Well, let us see. If the Democratic Unionist Party is now aglow with non-sectarian intent, let the party tell Nelson McCausland to abandon his plan to allocate houses at the Girdwood site in north Belfast on a sectarian basis.
If Sinn Fein has left the past behind, will the party discipline Conor Murphy for the egregious example of sectarian discrimination exposed in an industrial tribunal finding on his appointment of a chairman of NI Water--an action which appears not to have been a once-off, but part of a pattern stretching back four years? Even in the limited terms of the stated aims of yesterday's events, would these two decisions--and one shouldn't be dependent on the other--not be more meaningful than the polite greeting at the Lyric Theatre?
Will such things happen? Time--not very much of it--will tell.
First published in the Belfast Telegraph.