Prince Charles handshake shows the modernisation of Sinn Féin

An historic handshake. Chris Bellew Fennell Photography/EPA

Prince Charles shook hands with Gerry Adams, president of Irish republican party Sinn Féin, in Galway on Tuesday. Adams and Prince Charles also had a 10 minute meeting, where they spoke about the suffering caused by the violent conflict over decades in Northern Ireland. This historic handshake represents another significant milestone in the peace process in Northern Ireland, and the deepening of relations between Ireland and the UK.

Despite the stark differences between Charles and Adams, commentators have noted some similarities. They are the same age, within a few weeks, both love nature and are fairly prolific writers. In a different world, they may have had a lot to say to one another. In this world, where one of them is long associated with violent anti-British struggle and the other is the British monarch in waiting, what’s amazing is that they have said anything to each other at all.

The handshake was particularly poignant given that Prince Charles’ great-uncle Lord Mountbatten had been murdered by the IRA in 1979, an act which Adams defended at the time. Mountbatten and Charles had an especially close relationship, and speaking in Sligo Charles described him as “the grandfather he never had”. Two teenage boys and an 82-year-old woman were also killed in the bomb attack. Charles visited the scene of the killing on Wednesday: the seaside village of Mullaghmore in County Sligo.

Political milestones

Significant political milestones in the Northern Ireland peace process can take a number of forms. The IRA ceasefire in 1994 – which put an end to the organisation’s armed struggle against the British in Northern Ireland – was a crucial turning point. So was the 1998 agreement which established the current political institutions in Northern Ireland, and the decision by the hard line Democratic Unionist Party to fully engage with Sinn Féin in power sharing in 2007.

But milestones don’t have to be detailed treaties or government formation – they can also be symbolic gestures. For example, when the usually uncompromisingly trenchant unionist leader Ian Paisley was captured in photographs laughing and joking with Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, it led to their being characterised as “the chuckle brothers”. And then the royal handshake in 2012 between the Queen and McGuinness – also the former IRA chief of staff – set the precedent for the Charles-Adams royal-to-republican handshake.

Chuckle brothers. Paul Faith/Pool/EPA

Party politics in Ireland

As well as being of long term political significance for the peace process and Anglo-Irish relations, the handshake is also likely to be significant for party politics in both Northern and Southern Ireland. A golden photo opportunity for Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams in the run up to the 2016 Irish election is the last thing other Irish parties need. Particularly since 2016 is the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising, and Sinn Féin will be hoping for an electoral boost on the back of the nationalist commemoration.

Sinn Féin has been moving to the political centre ground in Northern Irish politics for several years. It has moved away from its paramilitary past, and accepted the position of Northern Ireland as part of the UK (at least until the majority in Northern Ireland say otherwise). This moderation of its position and engagement with unionist parties in the power sharing arrangements has garnered it support from more middle class, anti-violence Catholics. So, having afternoon tea with the heir to the throne is unlikely to have done it any harm among such voters.

In the general election Sinn Féin won four seats, but persisted with its long-standing policy of abstaining from Westminster. This was despite the fact that Sinn Féin could possibly have played a decisive role if the numbers had come out slightly differently. But if the most senior Sinn Féin figures are now not abstaining from meeting the most senior royals, the party’s parliamentary abstentionism may come under question.

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