So often Northern Ireland generates pessimism and bad news. In the 24 years since the Good Friday Agreement the province’s politics have been bedevilled by bitter sectarian disputes. The Stormont Assembly is presently suspended yet again because of unionist opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol of the Brexit deal and the de facto border it created in the Irish Sea. Sinn Féin’s emergence as the province’s largest party in last May’s Stormont elections has propelled the incendiary issue of Irish reunification up the agenda. It often seems there is no real peace in Northern Ireland, just an absence of violence.
And yet, viewed from a wider perspective, there is cause for great optimism. Consider that in 1979 the Provisional IRA blew up a fishing boat carrying Lord Mountbatten, the Prince of Wales’s beloved great-uncle, off the coast of County Sligo, killing Mountbatten and three others, in a hugely symbolic strike against the hated British Crown. Forty-three years later Sinn Féin, the IRA’s mouthpiece throughout the Troubles, has paid fulsome tribute to the Queen following her death last Thursday (8 September) and expressed its condolences to King Charles in person. Within an hour of the Queen’s death the Irish republican party sent its supporters an e-mail instructing them not to gloat – an instruction that was largely obeyed.
At Stormont on Monday Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Féin’s leader in Northern Ireland and the First Minister-designate, dressed in black as she led the Assembly’s tributes to the Queen, calling her “courageous and gracious” and praising her “significant contribution to the advancement of peace”. Due largely to Sinn Féin’s leadership, the Belfast Telegraph reported, “a day that once would have been ripe for disputatious debate” instead provided “a moment of unity and reconciliation”.
On Tuesday O’Neill and Alex Maskey, the Stormont Speaker and a former member of the IRA who was twice jailed in the 1970s, went to Hillsborough Castle, another symbol of British rule, to express their condolences to Charles in person. A remarkable video clip shows the three shaking hands and chatting like old friends. “What are you now, the biggest party are you?” Charles asks O’Neill as Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, looks on. “Don’t be telling Jeffrey that now,” Maskey jokes.
Far from taking umbrage, Donaldson described the meeting as “an indication of how far we have travelled in Northern Ireland. I think this would not have been possible and it would not have happened during the dark days of our troubled past.” There has been little dissent from grassroots Irish republicans either, though Sinn Féin has stressed that it is merely commemorating the late Queen and will not take part in events marking Charles’s accession.
Sinn Féin’s tribute is well deserved. Whatever her personal feelings may have been, the Queen set them aside for the greater good. In 2011 she became the first British monarch to visit the Republic of Ireland. During a triumphant visit she spoke some words in Irish and laid a wreath commemorating those IRA volunteers who fought against Britain for Irish independence in 1919-21. Sinn Féin boycotted that visit but found itself wildly at odds with public opinion.
The following year the Queen shook hands in Belfast with Martin McGuinness, the former IRA commander who had become Northern Ireland’s deputy First Minister. Later she invited him to a state banquet at Windsor Castle. Charles has played his part, too. He shook hands with Gerry Adams, another former IRA leader, in Galway in 2015 and wrote to Mary Lou McDonald, the present Sinn Féin president, when she was recovering from Covid. McDonald reciprocated by writing to the Queen and Charles following the death of the Duke of Edinburgh.
The Queen’s death has lent further impetus to the process of reconciliation. While Northern Ireland’s politicians have endlessly squabbled, the British Crown, once a symbol of strife and division, has gradually become a force for healing and forgiveness. It has been an astonishing transformation.