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Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

Column What we're seeing is a charade - Sinn Féin's decision is already made

Will Martin McGuinness meet the Queen? The real question is who the party wants to represent, writes David McCann.

IN HIS AUTOBIOGRAPHY, Tony Blair observed Sinn Féin’s negotiating tactic during the Good Friday Agreement – noting that the party had a line and they stuck to it and if there was any movement it had already been agreed by the party beforehand.

It’s nice to see that 14 years on that little has changed in how the party approaches big decisions. The issue today is whether Martin McGuinness should meet the Queen on future visits to Northern Ireland. Speculation about such a decision has been rife since she visited Ireland last May, when the party grossly miscalculated the level of support among the Irish people for a closer relationship with Britain.

The Queen while she was here remembered the fallen men of the 1916 Rising and paid tribute to President McAleese. What was remarkable about the visit was seeing both women sitting side by side as two equal heads of state, neither one subordinate to the other but two people who were the figureheads of their countries.

A year on, we stand on the cusp of another important decision about whether Sinn Féin will meet the Queen. We have seen senior party members like Conor Murphy and Martin McGuinness himself express ambiguous support for a change in policy. This is where the real change starts. From taking seats in Dáil Eireann in the early eighties to supporting the PSNI in 2007, the party always follows this strategy of sensing where the public mood is going and slowly adapting itself.

Sinn Féin desperately want to become a dominant political force across Ireland and what holds them back is the weight of the baggage they carry from the Troubles. What better way for the party to continue its advancement than to meet the Queen? Such a gesture will be met with support from the moderate elements of nationalism that the party so desperately needs if it wants to grow its electoral support.

‘Sinn Fein wants to become a natural party of government’

Make no mistake, McGuinness and Adams are both incredibly strategic; politics for both men is a game of chess where they attempt to outflank their political opponents and at the moment the party is looking to call check mate on its long time rival the SDLP. What we are watching is completely stage-managed. The decision has already been made and what we are seeing is a managed piece of public relations.

Sinn Fein wants to become a natural party of government in Northern Ireland and a government-in-waiting in the Republic. The problem for party in this regard is that parties of government typically have to get off grand visions of what their perfect world would look like and address some real concerns. Popularity is meaningless unless you do something with it; if you want to be a party of government, you have to attempt to be a government for all your citizens. If you aspire to unify the nation, then you must be a vehicle for those who oppose you as well as support you.

We are moving into a decade of commemorations. With important events for both Unionists and Nationalists on the horizon we will see Unionists reaffirming the values set out in the Ulster Covenant and Nationalists looking back to the purity of the Proclamation.

We are struggling as a nation to define ourselves in 2012 largely because as we move further from these important events we see them as less relevant to modern Ireland. This crisis of definition is what we are seeing with Sinn Féin at the moment, a party that wants to keep Irish history in the rear view mirror yet still wants to move on and grow its base. If we don’t want divisive symbolism in 2012 then we must think: How do we create events that are symbolic for all the right reasons?

The question being posed to Martin McGuinness today is: Is this a time to stand on ceremony for the British monarch? Which is the wrong question to pose. What McGuinness needs to think about is, does he want to be the Deputy First Minister who missed an important opportunity to modernise his party? Remember only Nixon could go to China – and I think that today the message from most people in Ireland today is that there is an abundance of goodwill between Britain and Ireland. Let’s move on and get on with it.

David McCann is a PhD researcher in Irish politics at the University of Ulster.

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