Paisley, Adams and the unforeseeable

There was no handshake on Monday, as John O'Farrell reflects, but this was a momentous day in Northe

"Today, we have agreed with Sinn Fein…" Ian Paisley’s throaty purr of those seven words was something nobody could ever have foreseen. The table arrangement was odd also. Adams and Paisley were at the same table but at different angles, with a decent gap between them in case Gerry stuck his hand out.

If he had, this would have been the set completed. A long-standing game for bored hacks with nothing much to report became the fetishization of handshakes. In the period between the first IRA ceasefire of 1994 and the Agreement signed in Easter 1998, progress was measured in handshakes.

Looking back, there was something uniquely ‘90s about the fuss. It somehow reeked of Clintonism, moments such his shoving together of Israeli and Palestinian paws in the Rose Garden, or his patented ‘rollover’ hand shake when he worked a line of his adoring public, all awaiting the firm press of his flesh with that half-second of concentrated eye contact.

Clinton’s handshake with Gerry Adams on the Falls Road in 1995 was a case in point. At the time of the first ever Presidential visit to Belfast, the IRA ceasefire was looking rocky, as the Major government was not giving Sinn Fein enough ‘face time’ to give Adams the credibility he needed to keep the wild boys onside.

By that stage, the plans for the Canary Wharf bomb were in place. The blast of February 1996 that murdered two newspaper sellers was briefly delayed by that handshake, photographed for posterity by Adams’ press aide, Richard McAuley. The small bakery on the Falls Road that hosted the event was renamed ‘Clintons’. It is now closed.

Some four months before, the first public handshake between Adams and a British government minister literally knocked out the lights. Michael Ancram was the Tory minister at the Northern Ireland Office who had been meeting Martin McGuinness since the ceasefire, but always behind closed doors. The first public pawing was at a US-funded ‘reconciliation’ conference in the Europa Hotel, during a coffee break.

The room was low-ceilinged and very crowded. As Ancram and Adams inched towards each other, about 20 press snappers went ballistic. The lights went out, fused by the static and bonhomie. All anyone saw was illustrated by the flashing cameras, like a strobe light in a disco.

‘Pleased to meet you’, said Ancram. ‘And nice to see you’, said Adams. Then the blinded minister was taken away by his handlers, presumably for a large dose of Optrex.

There is one politician on Earth that Adams has not been photographed with, and that is someone he has met hundreds of times. Tony Blair is still holding out on the final ‘historic’ snap, of him and Gerry at the door of Number 10. Perhaps Blair remembers the first time he met Adams. It was in the autumn of 1997, up in Stormont, and behind closed doors. At the press stand-up afterwards, Adams confirmed that, yes indeed, he had shaken hands with the Prime Minister.

By that time, the Prime Minister was about to do his ‘balancing’ thing, meeting the DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson at an East Belfast shopping centre to meet and shake some hands of the ‘other’ ‘community’.

Instead, Blair was ambushed by a Paisleyite rent-a-mob screaming ‘wash the blood of yer hands’, and ‘ye shook the hands of a murderer’. Blair’s security beefed him into a windowless manager’s office, whereupon Robinson narrated through a folder of photographs of the remains of IRA bomb victims.

Ten minutes later, Blair ran the gauntlet back to his car. When he reached it, he stopped, brushed away the protecting hand of a handler, and beamed a huge smile and cheery wave. I looked around to see if he had any discreet fans among the mob. He hadn’t, but he had spotted an ITN cameraman, and waved as if it was just another day’s work.

The era of hand-gesture politics is over, thankfully. That’s one good thing to celebrate.