When Queen Elizabeth II visits Northern Ireland next Wednesday, her program will include meeting its deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, chief of staff of the Provisional IRA from 1978 to 1982 and a leading member of both the IRA and its political wing, Sinn Fein, through the 30-odd years of the “Troubles.” In this former career, McGuinness was responsible directly and indirectly for the murder of many innocent people, Catholics and Protestants, by bombing and shooting. Among those victims was the Queen’s cousin, Lord Mountbatten of Burma, in 1979. Other victims may be hardly less renowned. According to to Douglas Murray’s closely reasoned analysis of the evidence before the Saville Inquiry in his important Bloody Sunday: Truth, Lies, and the Saville Inquiry — McGuinness brought a submachine gun to the protest march and may have fired it at a very early stage of the massacre. Because Murray condemns the British Paras in unqualified terms for their role in the murders — as did both the Inquiry and Prime Minister David Cameron — this criticism of McGuinness cannot be dismissed as an official excuse. The fact that McGuinness helped greatly to escalate the early conflict in Northern Ireland has to be taken seriously. McGuinness has neither acknowledged nor repented of these crimes; he has merely expressed a general regret that innocent people died in the armed struggle.
Today the “Troubles” are all but over. A relatively small number of die-hard Republican terrorists, known absurdly as “dissidents,” continue the “Brits Out” campaign, shooting the occasional policeman, planting the odd bomb near a school. Catholic and Protestant working-class localities in Belfast and Derry, no longer in fear of sectarian bombings, nonetheless live under the thumb of co-religionist gangsters who began as the “hard men” of the armed struggle. Northern Ireland is recovering from its Calvary, but it is a harsher, colder, and poorer place today than it would have been without the 30 years of war. It is scarcely less divided than in the past. In southern Ireland, Sinn Fein has put murder behind it to emerge as a “populist” party on the model of France’s National Front and a possible contender for power in the event of a close election. “Dissidents” in both the North and South now kneecap or murder drug dealers and petty criminals in a brutal crowd-pleasing strategy that the Provos and Sinn Fein once pioneered but now condemn. All these are the fruits not of the Troubles merely, but of their long duration.
Yet most of the legitimate aims of Irish nationalism were conceded in the 1970s, long before the Good Friday Agreement, except for two: a united Ireland and, very significantly, a guaranteed place in government for Sinn Fein and other political parties rooted in terrorism. Ireland is still divided and seems likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. So the price of today’s cold peace was a minister’s limousine for Martin McGuinness.
Nonetheless, in an attempt to make that peace warmer — to draw a line between present and past and promote reconciliation between both parts of Ireland and between Ireland and Britain — then-president Mary MacAleese last year invited the queen to visit the Irish Republic. By common consent, the queen’s visit was a moving, even-handed, and even imaginative occasion. The queen laid a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance to commemorate “all those who gave their lives in the cause of Irish Freedom.” They include the rebels of the 1916 Easter Rising executed by the British Army. She and President MacAleese also made preparations to commemorate those volunteers, Irishmen and Ulstermen alike, who fought in the British Army in the “Great War,” above all on the Somme, and who were written out of history in the first 90 years of the Irish Republic. It is undeniable that both the queen’s visit and the warm response to it by Irish leaders and the Irish people were historic steps toward a full reconciliation of all people throughout the British Isles (or, to forestall the usual pettifogging objection, on both sides of the Irish Sea). Both women deserve great praise. Today the queen’s meeting with McGuinness is generally seen as the next step in this process of reconciliation.
This opinion is held even by many of the Provisional IRA’s victims and their families. No praise is too high for the Christian charity they have shown toward their former tormentors — a Christian charity disgracefully lacking in a sectarian-nationalist war. They have the moral authority to ask the rest of us to forget the past in an attempt to secure a better future. And their virtue is seconded by the hard calculation that prime ministers, diplomats, peace negotiators, and policemen must sometimes shake hands with murderers in order to persuade them to put down their arms and settle disputes democratically. It’s a dirty job, but we elect governments to do it.
This argument of necessity does not apply, however, to the head of state, whether a hereditary monarch such as Elizabeth II or an elected president such as Barack Obama. Ideally, the direct involvement of heads of state in state affairs should take place only when the issue is either above partisan politics or manifestly virtuous. They need not participate in negotiations with terrorists, and they should not confer national approval on evil deeds or vicious people. There are, however, commonsense limits to this rule: The queen cannot avoid meeting other heads of state at Commonwealth meetings even if they happen to be brutal despots such as Robert Mugabe. And the divided character of the U.S. presidency — half elected politician, half symbol of national unity — means that a president is inevitably enmeshed in partisan politics (though, ideally, the vice president will handle the rough stuff). And there are commonsense applications of the rule, too: Buckingham Palace has in the past looked foolish and worse when it has been drawn by governments into “realistic” diplomatic moves such as granting a knighthood to the Romanian tyrant Nicholas Ceausescu. And President Obama’s decision to tell the world that he personally chooses which enemies of the U.S. to kill by drone attacks will almost certainly look unseemly in retrospect. Such acts, even when inspired by legitimate motives, demean and weaken the sovereign power and the country it represents.
Sovereigns represent their nations at a level deeper and different from birds of passage such as prime ministers. They represent its historic legitimacy. When the queen meets McGuinness on Wednesday, she will in effect be confirming the cynical view that all states, including her own, are founded on great crimes that history has decided to forget. There is more truth in this view than we might wish, but we should not add to its substance. If we do, others with a grievance will be sure to notice — and they will surely note the implicit permission such cynicism gives to rebel against all forms of legitimacy, including democratic legitimacy. The fact that the handshake with McGuinness will take place in private is itself an admission of its dubious character.
On the same day that the news broke of the queen’s proposed meeting with McGuinness, the trial of Andrei Breivik ended in Oslo. Families of his victims left the court to avoid hearing his justification that he had killed their loved ones out of a higher political necessity. Breivik is a thoroughly wicked man, but he is responsible for fewer deaths than McGuinness is. And their arguments are essentially the same: Both believe their murders were justified by history; both are therefore unrepentant; both offer vapid regrets that shuffle off responsibility for their crimes onto everyone else. What assurance do such justifications give us about McGuinness’s future conduct?
If McGuinness were to offer a heartfelt confession of his crimes, make a sincere apology to his victims, and ask for their forgiveness — as other former members of the IRA and the Protestant paramilitaries have done — then the queen would have good reason to shake his hand in recognition that he had begun to go down the road of truth and reconciliation. Without that, she will be shaking hands not with murder only but also with lies, hypocrisy, and a fragile expediency.
— John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review.