The Last Word: A Handshake on the Road to Reconciliation

Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness and Queen Elizabeth of Britain shake hands. Photo by Google Images.

By Martin McGuinness. Deputy First Minister, Northern Ireland
August / September 2012

The day after his groundbreaking handshake with Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness delivered the following speech (which has been condensed for publication) at a Sinn Féin event in Westminster. Though he describes the handshake as political, highly significant and very symbolic, McGuinness doesn’t believe that the journey to true reconciliation is over.

There have been many momentous and indeed historical moments which have marked my 40 years in struggle. Some have been highly political, others have been highly significant and some have been highly symbolic.

Yesterday’s meeting with Queen Elizabeth in Belfast embraced all of these things.

It was a meeting which, although short in length, can, I believe, have much longer effects on defining a new relationship between Britain and Ireland and between the Irish people themselves.

It was not a meeting that came about as a result of a few weeks or a few months work. It came about as the result of decades of work constructing the Irish Peace Process, involving very many people in very many roles.

And I wish to pay tribute to all of those, from Presidents to Taoisigh to Prime Ministers, from politicians to church and community leaders and ordinary people up and down Ireland, who placed building a new future ahead of fighting old battles.

Britain’s involvement in Irish affairs has been marked by colonialism, plantation, division and partition. It has been bad for Ireland and her people and bad for Britain and her people.
We have been left to deal with that legacy. It is a legacy that has contaminated normal politics and normal relations between our islands for generations.

It gave rise to the conditions which fostered inequality, division and conflict. Second class citizenship for nationalists in the North was underwritten by successive British governments.
For 40 years my life has been about changing all of that. Massive progress has been made. We have transformed society in the North. But that transformation has come at a heavy price on all sides. Over 3,000 people lost their lives in the course of the conflict. Many more suffered injury and loss. Every single violent act was evidence of a failure of politics and a failure of British policy in Ireland.

We are emerging from a conflict that resulted in lives being lost and families being devastated. I genuinely regret every single life that was lost during that conflict and today I want every family who lost a loved one to know that your pain is not being ignored and I am willing to work with others to find a way to deal with our past so that we can complete our journey to true reconciliation.

I hear some commentators talk about the Good Friday Agreement being reached back in 1998, and following a successful completion of an Assembly mandate that the Peace Process has come to a conclusion. I do not share this view, it is wrong and it is a mistake. The task of building National Reconciliation is as much a part of the Peace Process as anything that has gone before.

I am up for the challenge and I welcome the opportunity for us to have a public conversation about how we deal with our past. That conversation will not be easy and the challenges will be great. However, I believe that with dialogue and trust we can develop a process that all of us can support and accept.

But national reconciliation will not be built on a shaky foundation of people questioning the legitimacy of positions adopted over the course of the conflict or by attempts to demean or denigrate those who were involved in it.

National reconciliation will be built on the firm foundation of mutual respect and decisive actions. That is the context within which I met Queen Elizabeth this week.

I was, in a very pointed, deliberate and symbolic way, offering the hand of friendship to unionists through the person of Queen Elizabeth, for which many unionists have a deep affinity.

It is an offer I hope many will accept in the same spirit it was offered.

Unfortunately, to date the British state has refused to even acknowledge its role as a combatant in the conflict. That position is no longer tenable as we move forward. It is insulting to victims of events like Bloody Sunday in my own city where 14 people were killed, and it is insulting to people’s intelligence. It is also excluding the British state from assisting a genuine process of national reconciliation in Ireland. A process which, though embryonic, is nevertheless under way.

There are issues that have not been brought to a conclusion, specifically the issue of the legacy of the conflict. The British government has a big role to play in that.

Many people in the North who are big supporters of the peace process are hurt. Just last week relatives of those killed in the Ballymurphy massacre were told by the British Secretary of State Owen Patterson that they would not have the type of inquiry that they were looking for, the kind of investigation that they wanted, into the deaths of their loved ones by the British Army. Likewise the British commitment at Weston Park for an inquiry into the murder of Human Rights lawyer Pat Finucane has not been implemented.  The government in London needs to stop obstructing these matters.

Indeed in recent times this British government has made a series of stupid and unhelpful decisions, including the revocation of the license of Marian Price and the continuing imprisonment of Martin Corey on the same basis. People may be shocked to discover that Peter Robinson and myself have met American President Barack Obama more times than we have met David Cameron in our role as First and Deputy First Ministers. This lack of engagement by David Cameron is a serious mistake and may provide a rationale for some of the damaging decisions made by Owen Patterson during his tenure at the Northern Ireland Office.

I am absolutely committed to the achievement of a New Republic in Ireland. I believe that the Good Friday Agreement offers us a clear democratic roadmap to get there. Under that agreement the Government of Ireland Act was repealed and the British government have committed to legislating for Irish unity in the event of a 50 plus one result in a border poll.

I also realize that the Ireland of 1922 is not the Ireland of 2012. But that does not mean that the current British government does not have an obligation to deal with the legacy of previous governments’ failures with regard to Ireland. If you continue to ignore an inherited problem you become part of the problem itself.

I would argue that the British people and their elected representatives need to become persuaders for constitutional change in the future.

Because that is the real future for Ireland – a united country at peace with itself and at peace with Britain. A society based on respect and equality.

And leading a debate on the future of the Union in England will become a central part of the work being undertaken in the future by Sinn Féin MPs elected to Westminster.

And as we roll out our united Ireland agenda, my actions this week give unionists and indeed others a glimpse of how we as republican leaders would behave in such a united Ireland.

I respect unionists and I respect their identity. All I ask in return is respect for my Irishness and my Irish republican identity.

It is an entirely legitimate position to argue for Irish freedom and independence. Sinn Féin are absolutely committed to pursuing this objective through peaceful and democratic means.

It is also an entirely legitimate position for people in England to actively support this position.

The problems between Ireland and Britain have not yet been resolved. But we now operate in a new context of compromise, agreement and peace. Dialogue has replaced conflict.

Respect has replaced mistrust. What I want to see develop now and in the time ahead is a relationship based on equality and respect between our two islands for the first time in our

For that to happen we will need new thinking. We will need new ideas. We will need new political realities to dawn. That will not happen if the British government continues to cling to old certainties born from a different era and a different time.

The partition of Ireland is an outdated relic of the past – a symbol of political failure. Is supporting partition really what a modern, forward-looking British government should be doing in the year 2012? I don’t think so.

I have said before that the 1916 Easter Rising marked the beginning of the end of the British Empire and that the Good Friday Agreement marks the beginning of the end of the union as we know it.

Now is the time for a new fresh approach to Irish-British relations. That is a challenge for everyone. It is a challenge for every one of you in this room.

It is also a challenge for the Irish government. For too long, successive Irish governments have paid lip service to partition. They have tolerated the division of our country and people which has resulted in Ireland as a nation not reaching our full potential. In future, ending partition, and national reunification, need to become Irish government policy, not merely an aspiration goal.

Everything we do as political leaders must at all times be about underpinning the peace process. And that includes our approach to the summer months and the marching season. And even at this stage I would encourage the Loyal Orders to bear this in mind when they file for parades through areas they know they are not welcome. I welcome the upcoming visit of the Orange Order to the Oireachtas [Irish Parliament], but they need to end their position of refusing dialogue with Sinn Féin or nationalist residents. I would ask them to look at the events of the past week and seriously debate how they are going to step forward and make their contribution to a lasting peace in the coming weeks.

We have a complex and very difficult historical relationship between our two islands. The trick is to learn from it rather than be constrained by it. I am up for the big challenge of redefining that relationship in the wake of this week’s historic events. But in the same way as you cannot make peace on your own, you cannot build reconciliation without participation.

Over the next decade we will commemorate the centenaries of many of the seminal moments that have defined modern Anglo-Irish relations. It would be very easy for each of us to select our versions of that history and celebrate and commemorate that with little regard to other events and other versions and indeed the legacy of that entire period.

We cannot make that mistake. These events will offer a unique opportunity to not just remember but to learn. Not just to commemorate but to understand.

Our children – be they in Ireland or in Britain – deserve a better future than we have had past. A future marked by respect and equality in place of conflict and suspicion.

I believe that we can get there. I believe that the future demands it.

It is my intention that this week’s event becomes a key building block in that new relationship and that new beginning.

One Response to “The Last Word: A Handshake on the Road to Reconciliation”

  1. Jewrry O'Neill says:

    Martin, I applaud your efforts and those of The Queen in the most honest efforts toward rapprochement to date. I was awe struck to see the hand shake and the Queen wearing green. I was so struck by the possibilities of that image that I wrote “Historic”


    There are moments in time, that make you pause and look,
    That you know instinctively, are destined for the history book,
    That lightening flash insight, that you know the past is past,
    A new dawning, a bright new day, a new die has been cast,
    There comes a time when sheer insanity, gives way to common sense,
    When both sides see eye to eye, and reach across the fence,
    No talk of starvation or internment, or of explosions or random assassination,
    Just hopeful feelings of goodwill, just an air of conciliation,
    Between the once mighty British Empire and the determined Irish nation,
    The men in the line, were descended from the men of 1916,
    And the Queen greeted each man warmly, and the Queen wore Green.

    ©Jerry O’Neill July 5, 2012

Leave a Reply to Jewrry O'Neill


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