Euan McColm: Historic handshake that allows Ulster to take the next step

TO FORMER Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain, the symbolism was “mind-blowing”. I know what he meant.

TO FORMER Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain, the symbolism was “mind-blowing”. I know what he meant.

If you wanted to illustrate just how Ulster has been transformed in recent years, there couldn’t be a more powerful image than the Queen shaking hands with Martin McGuinness. But to treat that remarkable – and moving – moment as nothing more than a marker of progress is to miss the point.

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While the sight of the monarch and the former IRA commander-turned-deputy first minister of Northern Ireland smiling warmly as they clasped hands is easily read as a symbol, its real power is as an instruction to others. It doesn’t just say that this is how far we’ve come, it says that this is where we have to go.

The meeting between the Queen and McGuinness is not a case of leaders catching up with the public mood, but of taking a step ahead of the communities each represents.

Years after the IRA and their unionist enemies downed guns and bombs, parts of Ulster remain divided by fear, hatred and distrust. Currently, 80 per cent of all housing estates in Belfast are divided 80 per cent in favour of either nationalist or loyalist communities.

Walk through those estates and you’ll see some of the 99 “peace walls” – huge steel structures still dividing Catholic and Protestant families.

A recent survey revealed 80 per cent of residents want to see the walls brought down, but, questioned further, a majority of those people said this should be done at some unspecified point in the future when it was “safe” to do so.

People might have stopped blowing each other up, and they might have a democratically elected assembly, led by unionists and republicans together, but they still feel safer having 10 ft of steel between them and the family next door.

I have some personal experience of the level of fear that exists between ordinary people in the province. As a news reporter, I returned to Northern Ireland summer after summer to cover the Troubles surrounding the Drumcree march. Orangemen had declared their right to walk along the Garvaghy Road in Portadown, while Catholic residents had vigorously opposed permission for the parade.

The law fell on the side of the nationalist community and a barrier was erected. For a few years, the Drumcree stand-off became a fixture of the annual news diary. In July 1998, Orangemen and their supporters were camped out on the hill by Drumcree Church, while, on the other side of the barrier, British soldiers (led by the brother of Piers Morgan) defended the barricades.

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Among the loyalist crowds I met young families, middle-class professionals. They ate ice-cream from one of the vans or listened to music. As confrontations with the British Army go, it was all rather jolly.

But at night, of course, the petrol bombs came out. Groups of young men tried to charge past the soldiers, dodging down a country road. Armoured vehicles forced them back.

And the violence spilled over into other places, including the little town of Ballymoney where an Ulster Volunteer Force cell declared their support for the rights of the loyalist community by petrol bombing a house and murdering three young brothers (Richard, Mark and Jason Quinn, aged just ten, nine and eight).

They were the children of a Protestant father and a Catholic mother. And theirs was the first funeral I ever attended. I can still remember – though wish I couldn’t – the horrible low wail their dad made, dropping to his knees as three small white coffins were brought into the cemetery.

On the day the children were killed, a school teacher on Drumcree hill told me that they’d still be alive if it hadn’t been for “those people”. He pointed to the Garvaghy Road estate. I was scared of him.

I saw similar hatred from the other side that night when I watched a mum in a Catholic estate enthusiastically instruct her children – aged maybe nine or ten – to throw petrol bombs at kids who should have been their playmates.

On the day of the Quinn brothers’ funeral, there was more reason for hope. Members of both communities had travelled in huge numbers. The street outside the church was crowded. Among those paying their respects were families who had lost relatives in atrocities carried out by paramilitaries on each side.

A unionist fellow in his 70s had lost his daughter in an IRA bombing 20 or so years ago. He had taken five buses to stand in the street. He told me he had “believed in it all” until his child was killed. Had he believed it when other people’s children had been killed? He had. Until they came to tell him about his daughter he hadn’t given the consequences to families on the other side a thought.

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He said that by coming to the funeral he and others would tell Northern Ireland that it was never worth it. He said he was optimistic that some good could still come from this latest tragedy. A few weeks later, on Saturday, August 15, a bomb exploded in the town of Omagh. Twenty-nine people died.

I thought back to those days when I watched the monarch and McGuinness meeting at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre. I remembered thinking in 1998 that the damnable, strange people of Ulster would never change (and this was my view of those on both sides) and then I found myself filled with optimism.

The Queen and McGuinness’s handshake allows other handshakes to take place. Republicans watching it must have heard the deputy first minister’s message that if he could shake the Queen’s hand, they could shake their neighbours’. The instruction from the monarch to her loyal subjects was identical.

Northern Ireland doesn’t require a symbol of how far things have come – the people know that already – but they do need reassurance that it’s safe to take the next step. And with their handshake, the Queen and Martin McGuinness have given them that permission.