IT had nothing to do with what he would say to her, or she to him.
Those details had been arranged in advance. In modern statecraft, symbolism is never left to luck. If Martin McGuinness was to meet the Queen and grasp her hand, both parties would know all the warm, inoffensive and empty words by heart.
Imagination supplied the missing pieces. What would she have chosen to say at Belfast's Lyric theatre last Wednesday, given liberty and a touch of honesty? How would he have replied, in honest truth? How would it have been if passion had stripped the strait-jackets of rank and responsibility from these two characters in the pantomime of power?
There's the embodiment of the British state, who lost a fatherly cousin to a 50-pound bomb amid a family holiday. The man offering his hand in Belfast was high in the councils of the Provisional IRA at the time, they say, when in 1979 the organisation boasted of doing to Lord Louis Mountbatten what he "had been doing all his life to other people".
The deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, hand outstretched, whispering his welcomes in Irish, was also – so it is alleged – head of the IRA's Northern Command when in 1987 a Remembrance Day gathering in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, was laid waste, with a dozen killed.
This head of state has just paid a visit to the little town, meeting the bereaved, and visiting churches of both persuasions. The lingering charge against McGuinness is that he had foreknowledge of the attack, and many others like it. How might it feel to take his hand?
James Martin McGuinness, of Derry in the north of Ireland, says he was done with the IRA when he was 24. He told an inquiry once that he had never read the organisation's fabled Green Book, in any of its editions. He wouldn't know, then, about an organisation that "claims and expects your total allegiance without reservation", or asserts "direct lineal succession" to the government of Ireland since 1916. And then claims the moral right to kill in liberty's name.
But McGuinness knows about killing. The Saville inquiry at which he spoke in 2003 spent 12 years wondering how British troops could kill 26 unarmed dissenters and bystanders, seven of them children, in Derry in 1972, on a day remembered as Bloody Sunday. For McGuinness, history's student, allegedly present then for the Provos, that was another episode in a story 800 years old. The killing was done, moreover, in the name of the monarch whose hand he was supposed to shake in 2012 for the sake of "reconciliation".
Most of the other guests at the Lyric last week were overlooked, predictably. I noticed one: the Belfast poet Michael Longley, one of the great Irish generation forged under pressure and heat. Watching the footage of the Queen and McGuinness in their delicate dance of causes betrayed and promises made, I dredged up a Longley poem, On Slieve Gullion.
The title refers to a mountain (of sorts) in Armagh. Its foothills reek of folklore, old epics and mythic heroes: Longley alludes to those. Mostly, however, the poet writes of a British paratrooper on reconnaissance at the end of the 1970s, "As he sweats up the slopes of Slieve Gullion/With 40 pounds of history on his back". For some in the north of the island of Ireland, that's a light pack.
In Belfast, in certain quarters, they will treat you these days to scabrous wit on the topic of the "peace industry" and the people who have made decent – insistently decent – careers from the art of niceness. For some, getting superannuated thugs to "come together" in mutual amnesia and shared banalities, to "bridge the gulf" and "put aside" the habit of butchery, is always worth a grant.
Others fret, instead, over the north's ingrained class assumptions, Prod or Pape, and about the appearance of a political carve-up between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists. Those who have inherited the world born of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement say Belfast is more divided than ever, that the walls dividing communities proliferate, that power-sharing is a contrivance and a sham, that hatred remains. Those voices allege that the meeting of the Queen and McGuinness is another episode in a fraud.
Sometimes, though, there's nothing wrong with a bit of hypocrisy. Sometimes hypocrisy is necessary and invaluable. So HMQ and the Provo (alleged) shook hands and therefore constructed an insult to believers on either side, or – a more serious matter – failed the bereaved and the cause of truth? So these were a pair of hypocrites, enabling lies to fester, allowing history to be debased? So they perpetuated the fraud that says the peoples of Ireland are reconciled?
Malcolm Sutton's remarkable book and database (cain.ulst.ac.uk/sutton/) says that between 1969 and 2001 there were 3529 deaths attributable to the Troubles. How many hypocrites and handshakes could we have spared, then, just for prevention's sake? What might have been the going rate, morally, in the 1970s? One staunch monarch to 100 lost? One republican hero to the dozen? Their rituals in 2012 come cheap. They remind us of the cost of stupidity.
McGuinness and the Queen play fast and loose with the facts: there is not much doubt about that. They display an extraordinary ability to render themselves less than human in the line of duty. They cause some to wonder why a hellish mess had to be endured to begin with. But they abuse honesty, the facts, sincerity, history and human emotion in a worthwhile cause. Sometimes, hypocrites are the least we need.
Now and again I get asked, by people who think I have something useful to add, why the north of Ireland has not matched South Africa in its attempts at truth and reconciliation. The answer is glib, but honest. In the six severed counties of Ulster, I say, you can have one or the other, reconciliation or truth, but not both.
Force McGuinness, his comrades, or anyone else to tell the truth and there will be no "reconciliation". Oblige the British spooks who ran the Loyalist death squads to come clean and we will be back on the road to war. Summon the politicians, the soldiers, the fighters for someone's freedom, and insist on the bloody facts: it begins again. Demand to know where the corpses lie, who ordered the shooting, or the bomb, or the torture: it resumes.
A truly honest person would say that the absence of truth – and an absence of will – makes it so. I say settle for the hypocritical compromise, and for the black comedy of the Queen shaking hands with McGuinness. It's not an opinion a journalist is supposed to hold, but it's not an opinion that will cause a child to be blown to bits. A person enraged by the monarch and the Republican is a person who would trade a life for an accurate footnote.
Besides, hypocrites find one another in the end. Anti-imperialist struggles always conclude with tawdry charades involving the state and the former guerrilla. It's hard to tolerate. Harder is the thought that 3529 people perished, on both sides, by accident or belief, for nothing at all.
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