The Irish British Handshake

Reprinted from

It was the handshake heard around the world.

Martin McGuinness, the former commander of the IRA, and Queen Elizabeth II, the current Monarch of Great Britain – which at the moment includes Northern Ireland, shook hands in Belfast.

The IRA killed the Queen’s Cousin, Lord Mountbatten, it has duly noted, making this handshake theoretically difficult for Elizabeth. Of course, the Queen’s people have killed hundreds, if not thousands, of Marty’s colleagues, and hunted him down for a couple of decades.

McGuiness is now the Deputy First Minister of the Northern Irish local government.  He has responsibility to help run things, build roads, provide social services, tax and spend, and all of the other chores that come from running a government.

Northern Ireland sits betwixt and between. It is Irish, in the sense of the Irish Tourist Board.  It is British, in the sense of the currency, which still prominently displays the Visage of the Queen, and in a more general sense.

When Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke win golf tournaments, there are called Irish, but they are more British than Irish. Paddy Harrington is the true Irishman in the golfing world. David Feherty? Not sure, but he may be the rare combination.

There is a temptation to think of the Irish as the poor, uneducated and wayward cousins of the British.  That is certainly how the British like to view it, as do the majority of the American media.

But the Irish are a different people than the British. They make speak English now, but that language was forced upon them, sometimes brutally. The Irish remained faithful to the Catholic Church (although thanks to the sex abuse cases, that faith is not nearly strong as it once was), while the British banned their monarchs from being Catholic or marrying a Catholic.

The Irish lost some big battles and frankly didn’t have the ability or the money to compete with the British through most of its history. Ireland is a much smaller country than Great Britain, and of course, that made it a tempting target for the various Kings of England.

Reconciliation is always important when dealing with your neighbors. But the fight between the British empire and the Irish Republic was always a contest between neighbors, not a squabble between cousins. The Celts were different from the Angles and the Saxons and the Normans that followed them.

Of course, over the centuries, through intermarrying etc. there are plenty of mixed blood on both sides of the Irish Sea. The Irish didn’t just emigrate to America. In fact, most went to London or Liverpool in search of steady job. And many of these Irish stayed because things in Ireland for most of the last century weren’t that great.

I am glad that Martin McGuiness and Queen Elizabeth had a chance to shake hands.  Shaking hands is far superior to shaking fists. And I am glad that the IRA’s political wing, Sinn Fein, is still participating in the Northern Ireland General Assembly, because political progress is far superior to war.

But that doesn’t mean that things are completely settled in the governing structure over there. At some point, the Catholic majority in Ulster is going to be big enough that they are going to want to rejoin their Irish brothers in a United Ireland. I wonder how King William will react to that vote.

Editor’s Note: John Feehery worked for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert and other Republicans in Congress. Feehery is president of Quinn Gillespie Communications. He is a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog and blogs at