Queen Elizabeth II with her husband, Prince Phillip, right, and her cousin… (Matt Dunham / Associated…)
I’m an Anglophile but not a monarchist, so I didn’t immerse myself in media coverage of Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee. But I did pay attention to reports about the queen’s politically consequential handshake with Martin McGuinness, the deputy first minister of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government. With this difficult act, the queen vindicated the sometimes sappy tributes to her service to her subjects.
McGuinness isn’t just any politician. As The Times reported, McGuinness was a commander of the Irish Republican Army in the 1970s when the terrorist group blew up the yacht of the queen’s cousin, Lord Mountbatten, killing him and three others. No doubt the queen over the years has exchanged pleasantries with several leaders with blood on their hands, but this gesture must have been particularly difficult.
But it was also useful in dramatizing progress in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday Accord of 1998. That agreement has produced a “devolved” provincial government in Belfast with a Unionist (= Protestant) as first minister and a Nationalist (= Catholic) as the quasi-coequal deputy first minister. Currently the first minister is Peter Robinson, but for a time the position was occupied by the anti-Catholic demagogue Ian Paisley. Paisley and McGuinness were one of history’s oddest political couples.
Beyond symbolism, the queen has acquiesced (as a constitutional monarch must) in decisions by Her Majesty’s Government to loosen the Crown’s connection to its subjects in Northern Ireland. In a gesture to Catholics who identify with the Republic of Ireland to the south, the name of the Royal Ulster Constabulary was changed to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. More substantively, in the Good Friday Agreement, Britain recognized that if a majority of the people in Northern Ireland agreed to be absorbed into a united Ireland, Britain would not stand in the way. Today that majority is Protestant; someday it could be Catholic.
In the meantime, Unionists and Nationalists are “governing without a consensus” (the phrase comes from a famous book about The Troubles) about whether Northern Ireland is British or Irish. It’s a solution that involves a good deal of ambiguity and uncertainty, but it has prevented the sort of bloodshed that cost more than 3,000 lives – including that of the queen’s kinsman. If so-called Loyalists reject that arrangement, they're being more royal than the queen.
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