Sinn Féin is not what it once was. While he was the party leader in Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness, a former IRA commander, shook Queen Elizabeth’s hand in 2012, he toasted to her in 2014; O’Neill herself met Charles shortly after his mother’s death. She declared herself “personally grateful” for the Queen’s role in Northern Ireland.
It is too easy to think that Sinn Féin is full of naked monarchophobes (republicanism and monarchy are definitionally at odds, after all). But it isn’t true. The political face of Irish nationalism is smarter than that, and in possession of a dynamism lacked by its unionist counterpart. This particular episode proves very little about how much Sinn Féin has changed – that change has long been realised (though it still has further to go).
No, it proves something else altogether: Northern Irish unionism lacks serious advocates.
Northern Ireland is a fragile place, only recently at peace and still without true reconciliation. The delicate sensibilities required to maintain that peace are not in the natural gift of either Sinn Féin or the Democratic Unionist Party. For four of the past five years the state has not had a government. The threat of renewed violence looms – worsened by the upheaval of Brexit.
The fractious peace relies on both unionists and nationalists feeling fairly represented, allowed to be British, Irish or both. It is not easy: one group abhors Northern Ireland’s membership of the United Kingdom, the other holds it dear. Sinn Féin, at the very least, is trying to resolve this impasse. O’Neill claims her republicanism isn’t diminished by her desire to represent all communities, including unionists. That may just be lip service, but it sets her apart from her opposition.
Meanwhile, the DUP is holding the state to ransom. Despite campaigning for Brexit it has turned down every plausible attempt to make it work (the open border on the island of Ireland – a shibboleth – makes it hard for the Republic to be in the European Union and the North to be out of it). The latest attempt – the Windsor Framework – has been lauded for its statecraft, and it affords Northern Ireland a uniquely privileged position both in and out of the EU. And lo, the DUP finds it inadequate. It is insufficiently unionist, the party says.
Compare that with O’Neill’s planned attendance of the coronation. To call the DUP petty is to be too kind.
Irrespective of ideology, we are looking at competing political forces in Northern Ireland: a dynamic and radically changed entity, conscious of the state’s need for balance, smart enough to try to make it work; and the stubbornness of professional unionism, embarrassed by the far superior quality of its opponents.
It is not necessary to believe in Sinn Féin’s project to acknowledge the party’s savviness. It is right to say the party has not adequately accounted for its past. It is reasonable – correct, even – to withhold support for its mission on account of its bloody history. But Northern Ireland will never work so long as it is burdened by the attitude problems of the DUP: a refusal to see a bigger picture, an adherence to principle so rigid it blocks all but one path, a total lack of imagination, an eschewal of realpolitik.
When the Queen died last summer the Irish tricolour hung at half mast over the General Post Office in central Dublin – the symbolic stronghold of the Irish republic, still riddled with bullet holes from the 1916 Easter Rising. It was evidence of an Ireland and a United Kingdom taking the long road to reconciliation together. Sinn Féin’s Northern Irish leader watching Charles III crowned king of a country she does not want to be part of is another step.
The greatest difficulty of Northern Ireland – the Gordian knot that defines the place – is how to respect two traditions that are mutually exclusive. Michelle O’Neill is not the answer – the sad truth is that a satisfying answer may not exist. But O’Neill can say something the DUP can’t: at least she is trying.