Martin McGuinness and the power of political symbolism

McGuinness attends the unveiling of a portrait of the Queen in 2016. PA/Jeff Spicer

From the Bogside in Derry to the Queen’s residence in Buckingham Palace, the journey made by Martin McGuinness has rightly been referred to as nothing short of remarkable.

For some, McGuinness epitomised Irish republican connections to a violent past. For others he represented the journey that many took across the north. But what was particularly remarkable about the former deputy first minister was his ability to understand the importance of symbolic acts in Northern Ireland. He was often to be found engaging in gestures that may have seemed trivial to the untrained eye, but were in fact integral to the peace process.

As Northern Ireland looks beyond its latest crisis, McGuinness’s skill in this aspect of peace building will be sorely missed.

Northern Ireland sits at a critical juncture. Government institutions have collapsed following a breakdown in relations between the DUP and Sinn Féin. An election failed to produce a working government. All this comes on the back of a litany of scandals that has eroded cross-party confidence.

Uncertainty about Brexit across the United Kingdom will also be felt acutely on the island of Ireland, both north and south. The prospect of a hard Brexit and the potential return of a fixed border has consequences, both real and symbolic. No one wishes to be dragged back to the dark days of cross-border checkpoints controlled by the British Army.

Cool heads are needed. McGuinness was capable of understanding the intricacies of engaging in symbolic acts of reconciliation. Others in his party have found this a little more challenging. Laced with evocative language glorifying armed struggle, Sinn Féin MEP Martina Anderson’s recent outburst in the European Parliament about the dangers of a border between the north and south is in sharp contrast to the conciliatory tone favoured by McGuinness in recent times.

Symbolism and conflict

In Northern Ireland, tribal symbols and traditional ethno-national markers such as parades have long been used as ways of demarcating territory and reinforcing an “us and them” politic. Fragile peace agreements have been shaken by perceived attacks on group identity. From Drumcree, where annual marches were surrounded by tensions, to the more recent flag protests at Belfast’s city hall, disputes over flags, parades and other symbols have become the new battleground in the “post-conflict” era.

The most famous gesture by McGuinness was perhaps the handshake between himself and the Queen that took place in Belfast in 2012. This was a moment that was welcomed within some circles for its purchase – although it was challenged by others.

An important moment. PA

But there was also his decision to watch Northern Ireland play Germany in the 2016 European Championships. His gesture was not reciprocated by First Minister Arlene Foster when the Republic of Ireland took on Italy.

McGuinness’s skill lay in his capacity to appreciate the resonance of such a move. It was his undoubted commitment to the peace process that allowed for a willingness to transcend tribal differences.

Unionism found wanting

Where McGuinness showed vision, others have floundered. unionist leaders have often failed to engage in the kind of gestures that could ultimately generate a sense of reconciliation with their nationalist counterparts.

Patronising attacks on the Irish language within the Northern Ireland Assembly and opposition to an act that would protect the use of the Irish language in public institutions reveals the lack of sensitivity towards symbolically resonant aspects of power sharing within some unionist circles. These are powerful tools for encouraging meaningful cross-community reconciliation. This speaks to an immaturity and insincerity that once led McGuinness to comment that some unionist leaders have a “psychological problem” with reconciliation, assuming it is some kind of “trick” being played on them by Sinn Féin.

Opportunities to attend historic 1916 commemorations – events that had as one of their core principles, “reconciliation on the island of Ireland” were snubbed by unionists. Meanwhile, McGuinness was calling on republicans to respect the commemorative events that were being observed by unionists – particularly those commemorating the Somme.

His violent past polarised opinion about McGuinness but his willingness to make magnanimous gestures ought to be remembered. And the importance of such gestures should not be underestimated. It was his understanding of their power that truly demonstrated the extent to which McGuinness was committed to peace.

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