The handshake between the British Queen and Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness is something significant even though most people in the North of Ireland have shrugged their shoulders and have only at the last minute really taken it under their notice because of the hype from the media. Both the British State and Sinn Fein wanted it to happen for their own reasons and were more than happy that it got the media blitz that it did.
Every commentator aware of the history has remarked on the sea-change that has taken place at this diamond jubilee visit compared to that during the Queen’s silver jubilee in 1977. At that time republicans demonstrated and rioted against her visit while today the hand of friendship has been extended. However beneath this difference the purpose of the visit has been exactly the same on both occasions although much more successful on this one.
The veteran journalist Peter Taylor has an item on the BBC news recalling his reporting on the visit for ITV in 1977 and the authorities in that station pulling his report ten minutes before it was due to be broadcast because it exposed the reaction to the visit. The British government was engaged in a huge propaganda effort to treat the political conflict as simply one of criminality arising from sectarian communal conflict over which the State was an impartial enforcer of peace and order. The purpose of the Queen’s visit, Taylor says, was to present her as a “great healer of the division between the two communities”. His report of opposition to the visit exposed this as nonsense.
It did not, and does not today, matter that everyone knew it was nonsense. The point was to set a public agenda behind which the real strategy of repression and political intrigue could be realised. This strategy was ultimately successful, although it took over two decades to bear fruit through the ‘peace process’, in the cause of which almost anything is justified.
Today the visit of the Queen and Sinn Fein’s very public welcome is designed to prove the aims of the 1977 visit have now been achieved. Both she and Martin McGuinness are the bearers of reconciliation and their handshake the equivalent of signing off on an agreement that the conflict that existed in 1977 is never going to return. The Queen can visit Ireland and there is no reason in the world to object to her presence or protest at the assertion of imperialist rule that these visits represent.
Such claims are acceptable because such acceptance betokens reconciliation. Of course this is presented as reconciliation of a divided community, of Protestant and Catholic, and who could oppose this? Certainly not socialists for whom the unity of Protestant and Catholic workers is a fundamental objective and which cannot happen without reconciliation. But the reconciliation on display yesterday was not between Protestants and Catholics but between the high representatives of their current political leaderships: the Queen as head of State of the imperial power and Martin McGuinness as the highest ranking nationalist minister in a sectarian administration of this imperial rule. What is involved is not erasing of the division but acceptance of it and promise of continuation in perpetuity. What has been reconciled is Sinn Fein with British rule.
What events this week have shown is that far from ending sectarianism this reconciliation promises its continuation. For this week the rotten sectarian heart of the new political arrangements in the North has been shamelessly exposed.
Conor Murphy, the recent Sinn Fein Minister for the Department for Regional Development (DRD), was found by a Fair Employment Tribunal to have engaged in unlawful religious discrimination in appointing a Catholic to Chairman of Northern Ireland Water in a case taken by one of the Protestant applicants.
The Tribunal’s judgement was scathing of Murphy. Both the successful Catholic candidate and Murphy claimed not to have met each other before the appointment and Murphy was “quite firm” in the view he had not met the applicant. Murphy however had previously appointed him to two public bodies while claiming not to know where he lived, although he was from Murphy’s constituency and had also been Chairman of the local Health and Social Services Trust. The tribunal nevertheless asserted that it “is satisfied, on the balance of probabilities, that the Minister did have contact with Sean Hogan, and met him when he was Chairman of the Health Trust in Newry, and that they knew one another. The Tribunal finds that both Sean Hogan’s and the Minister’s evidence in these respects lacks credibility.”
The Tribunal also found that “for a four year period between 2007-2011, when the Minister was in charge of DRD, there was a significant disparity between the success rates of Protestant applicants and Catholic applicants within DRD, and that a Catholic applicant was at least twice as likely to be appointed than a Protestant applicant. Statistics for other Government Departments show a ratio at or close to 1:1. The Tribunal is satisfied that there was a material bias against the appointment of candidates from a Protestant background within DRD. The Tribunal is concerned that Dr McKibbin, as Permanent Secretary within DRD at the material time, and currently Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, was not more aware of the situation.”
Even in the dark days of Unionist discrimination during the previous Stormont regime pre-1972 I can recall no case of a Minister and senior civil servant being implicated through exposure of such high profile discrimination. It was actions like these that led to the civil rights movement and the fall of the old Stormont. Yet there have been no words of criticism from the rest of Sinn Fein and in fact two Sinn Fein Ministerial colleagues of Murphy’s were consulted by him in making the appointment. Murphy has continued to deny his guilt although it is impossible to believe that the evidence and judgement of the Tribunal would not be accepted by Sinn Fein if it involved Unionist discrimination against Catholics.
Sinn Fein’s claims to oppose sectarianism are badly damaged and their hypocrisy exposed. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. The new Stormont promises sectarian discrimination just like the old one except that both sides will now be at it. The silence of the representatives of Unionism is deafening. They knew that this is what they were agreeing to by accepting Sinn Fein in office because that is what being ‘in government’ is all about. Small and relatively powerless local administrations do nothing but administer bureaucracy and distribute the spoils of office. By their silence it is quite clear that Unionists will view the actions of Sinn Fein as licence to do the same. The benefit to Catholics of Sinn Fein discrimination will be licence for Unionism to discriminate against them.
Sectarianism is to be more secure because everyone will be at it except of course that the whole point of discrimination is to arrive at an unfair and unbalanced outcome. Equality of discrimination makes no sense at all and will be proved in the attempt to achieve it. It is not an inherently stable proposition. However the attempt to achieve it means that if there is to be real opposition to sectarianism and discrimination the unity of the working class becomes a more obvious need because both stand immediately to benefit. Let Sinn Fein and the British State become reconciled to the current arrangements; the true cause of reconciliation belongs to those opposed to religious discrimination. By becoming ‘friends’ it must be made clear to working people of both religions that the Queen and the Minister are both on the other side.