Historic handshakes and the cycle of violence

Symon Hill
By Symon Hill
1 Jul 2012

We can only guess what was going through the minds of Martin McGuiness and Elizabeth Windsor as they shook hands in Belfast last week. One of my favourite takes on the event was a cartoon of the handshake in Thursday's Independent. It showed Elizabeth saying "Renouncing command of an army and seeking democratic approval - nawt bleddy lakely!".

As a republican pacifist, I have little natural sympathy with either Martin McGuiness or Elizabeth Windsor. However, I applaud the efforts of various politicians on several sides in the Irish peace process. Even more so, I applaud the people of Northern Ireland themselves.

I was truly heartened by the photographs of this handshake. Thankfully, neither party to the handshake - nor their advisers - felt the need to rush out statements in advance clarifying what they did or didn't mean by it. McGuiness did not bow to Elizabeth Windsor. Nor, I suspect, did he address her as "your majesty". It was good to see her talking to someone as an equal. McGuiness was quick to tell the media afterwards "I'm still a republican".

The handshake said far more than words could, despite all the questions it leaves open. It says a lot about the frustrating but inspiring nature of reconciliation that a handshake like this can happen while the questions are still so open. Reconciliation is not easy. It is not fluffy or comfortable. Reconciliation is messy. It is painful. Reconciliation involves seeing people you're not keen on doing things that you'd rather they were not doing.

It's been good to see several newspapers applauding the reconciliation symbolised by this handshake. Some of those same papers took a different approach throughout the troubles, insisting that it would be both wrong and unproductive to try to engage in dialogue with terrorists. They now speak about reconciliation and the need to break cycles of violence.

Sadly, some of them are as reluctant to apply this message to Afghanistan, Syria or the streets of Britain as they were to apply it to Northern Ireland in the 80s and 90s. Reconciliation is a rather easier thing to support once it has gained widespread approval. It is much harder for the brave individuals who are prepared to advocate it while others are screaming for blood.

Violence and hatred breed more violence and hatred. This is surely one of the most obvious lessons of history as well as one of the most ignored. As Martin Luther King put it, through violence you may destroy the hater, but you will not destroy the hate.

I would find it hard to shake hands with either Elizabeth Windsor or Martin McGuiness, although I hope I would readily do so in the unlikely event that the situation presented itself. I applaud them - and their advisers - for the handshake, for the equal, respectful body language and for the fact that neither side felt that lots of words were needed to justify themselves.

Even more do I applaud the people of Northern Ireland and the many others who have played a part in the long, very incomplete but truly inspiring process of reconciliation. Let's applaud the courage of those brave enough to support the first steps to reconciliation, as well as those who came to the process late and were prepared to lose face by putting reconciliation first.

One of the most poignant reflections on the handshake was written by Tony Parsons in the Daily Mirror. He noted that we cannot know what went through the heads of either party as they shook hands. We can't know what ghosts haunted them. He added, "But this we can say with certainty. The human soul grows sickened of hatred".

Amen to that.

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(c) Symon Hill is associate director of Ekklesia and author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion.

For links to more of his writing, please visit http://www.symonhill.wordpress.com.

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