A little piece of history took place in a politically nervous corner of the United Kingdom today when the Queen shook hands with Ireland's deputy first minister, Martin McGuiness, and former commander of the IRA. Whoever thought through the details of this drama deserves an OBE if they don't already have one. But then again, it could have been the Queen for all we know...
The symbolism of Queen Elizabeth II shaking hands with a former 'terrorist' who is now a political figurehead would have been unthinkable for most people a decade ago. Over 40 meetings (that we are allowed to know about) took place in the run up to this public performance. And this was preceded by a carefully orchestrated visit to an Anglican church, followed the first ever visit of a British monarch to a Catholic church in Northern Ireland, and a dry run handshake in private before the public display. To top it all, the Queen was shaking hands with a man who was implicated in the assassination of her cousin, Lord Mount Batten 25 years ago. It was all-round clever timing: it would be hard to say No to the world's most popular monarch in the heyday of her popularity. As Gerry Adams put it, it was "the right thing to do, at the right time and for the right reasons." And if I might add, the right woman to do it!
It’s been fashionable to describe today's handshake as unthinkable a decade ago: somehow the events sneaked up on us as we were recovering from the Jubilee celebrations! But I dare say that there were some brave souls who dreamt of it a decade ago. Political players such as John Major, John Reid and David Trimble who pioneered these discussions - even before Tony Blair's Good Friday Agreement would have had comparative ambitions for peace in the Province.
And that's important for all of us where strife, conflict and entrenched tensions abound. Impossible ideas start their journeys when a few daring people are willing to dream. Mandela and De Clerk in South Africa understood this.
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