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Sunday 6 March 2011

Queen's visit poses tricky dilemma for Adams

Were Sinn Fein to protest noisily, it could alienate voters south of the border, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

'EVEN if I were not a nationalist, I should object to kings' visits," wrote Constance Markievicz to her brother Josslyn Gore-Booth in 1911, after the visit of George V, "for they but bring out the worst qualities in people: all sorts of snobbery is developed in people . . . everyone using every means to get himself noticed."

What was breathtakingly hypocritical about this was that -- as Josslyn knew -- Mrs Markievicz was such a thundering snob that she called herself 'Countess', although her husband's title was bogus.

In jail in 1918, 1916 leader Tom Clarke's widow Kathleen was fascinated by the disputes between Markievicz (who patronised her relentlessly) and Maud Gonne MacBride about which of them was higher in the social pecking order.

Mrs MacBride, like Mrs Markievicz, was an exhibitionist who indeed used "every means" to get herself noticed. Her memorable contribution to the visit of King Edward VII in 1903 had been to hang a black petticoat out of her window as a protest against the union flags being flown by her unionist neighbours.

So who will be trying to get themselves noticed when Queen Elizabeth I visits in May? Sinn Fein is in a right old state trying to decide whether to be passive or active. Gerry Adams, touted to lead Sinn Fein in a parliament in which he has yet to sit, is being cautious. He's all too aware that he doesn't have that feel for the Irish electorate that he has for the brainwashed denizens of West Belfast.

Ogra Shinn Fein committed itself last year to protest against any visit from 'Elizabeth Windsor' -- which is what republicans usually call her. Adams, uneasily aware that people in the Republic might think this ill-mannered, produces the compromise of 'Queen Elizabeth of England' (she is, of course, Queen of Great Britain and Northern Ireland). Ogra SF is outraged that "the entire basis for her position is based on priviledge (sic) and good fortune. How can any republican do anything other than to oppose the existance (sic) of such an absurd institution, much less its right to be received with a gracious welcome while her forces occupy part of Ireland?"

And in a radio interview Martin Ferris TD indicated that no State visits would be welcome from monarchs. He seemed not in the least discomfited when it was pointed out that this meant ruling out Belgium, Denmark, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Sweden. Gaddafi, of course, that great democrat and arms-supplier-of-choice to the IRA, would no doubt be given a hero's welcome in parts of the Kingdom of Kerry.

Ferris, however, is not a man for nuance. Adams is. The diplomats who taught him 'creative ambiguity' trained him well. His statement explained that -- as republicans -- Sinn Fein were very aware of the offence the symbolism of this visit would cause to many Irish citizens, "particularly victims of British rule and those with legacy issues in this state and in the North". (I love "legacy issues". Do you think the queen has a problem with legacy issues, like the IRA murder of her husband's uncle Lord Mountbatten, or the aborted attempt to murder her son and his first wife?)

On the other hand, caring Sinn Fein was "also very conscious of the attitude of our unionist neighbours" and all for the normalisation of relationships between Ireland and the UK. This, however, required "the ending of the Partition of Ireland".

Sinn Fein respects President Mary McAleese's right to invite "the English monarch": however, "we believe this visit is premature and we expect our views to be respected also".

Will Sinn Fein decide to protest noisily? Can Ogra Shinn Fein be held in check? Adams isn't sure. He's worried about being outflanked on the green side by groups like Republican Sinn Fein (who were largely responsible for the violence in O'Connell Street when an Orange parade came to town) and eirigi, who are young and energetic. Both are issuing very thinly veiled threats to disrupt the visit. Yet he must know the Irish electorate will not think that the way to improve the country's tarnished reputation abroad is to start rioting because an 85-year-old woman of impeccable virtue and her loyal 89-year-old husband are coming to say hello and -- if she gets her way-- go to a race meeting.

The problem for republicans is that though this shattered country is depressed, most people do take pride in having resolved the old quarrel over disputed territory with the Good Friday Agreement and of having a relationship of genuine equality with the United Kingdom. Most Irish have friends or relatives living happily in England, and all too many are seeing their children fleeing there in search of work. The ould enemy has become a friend.

Does Adams understand that? Or is he about to instruct Mary Lou McDonald to dig some black garments out of her lingerie drawer?

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards