Did you suck your breath in when you heard it? I did. The headline was ‘Sinn Féin set to support Belfast Diamond Jubilee events’. Queen Elizabeth II, aka Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, will have been on the English throne sixty years this year, so there’ll be, we’re told, celebrations. Including “a big Sunday lunch”, the planting of commemorative trees and (shudder) “a tea dance to be held in the Ulster Hall”. And it says here Sinn Féin people are going to be planting and big Sunday lunching and (turns a whiter shade of pale) tea-dancing with Sammy and Peter and Gregory and other admirers of royalty? Dear sweet God – has it come to this, I wondered?
And then I looked down the account and read the small print. Which produced a number of game-changing details.
“Supporting” Jubilee events isn’t quite the same as “participating”. In fact, the Shinner support will consist of either voting for the £56,000 these festivities will entail, or maybe just abstaining. Not quite the same as Gerry and John and Martin lining up for the slow foxtrot at the tea-dance.
The diamond jubilee knees-up is just one of the matters being looked at by a special Belfast City Council working group. Another is the flying of the union flag over Council buildings. It seems the group has had a presentation by one Denise Wheatley, who apparently is an expert on equality policies. She told the group that she figured it was “acceptable and appropriate” to have the union flag fly over Belfast City Hall, but that it would be a good idea not to fly said flag over the Ulster Hall and the Drumcree complex. What’s more, while it was fourth on her list, she looked at the option of the union flag and the tricolour flying side-by-side.
There is a whole raft of centenaries coming at us over the horizon during the next decade, and as Sinn Féin’s Jim McVeigh pointed out on TV last week, it’ll be necessary to plan appropriate responses to all of these.
While the flag thing is the most emotive, the planning for the coming centenaries is the most important, if only because there are so many of them. There’s the Ulster Covenant, the Larne gun-running, the Howth gun-running, the Easter Rising, the Battle of the Somme, the Tan War, the first Dáil, the partition of Ireland. These are all highly emotive events and it makes sense for all political parties to look at them and come to an even-handed arrangement. So you may be sure that if the Shinners have given the DUP some slack on the tea dance front, they’ll be expecting similar slack over at least two of the aforementioned centenaries.
So I had to do some serious modification to my initial reaction. Politics, like marriage, involves give and take. Sinn Féin have done the giving on the diamond jubilee funding front (and some others, but let’s leave them for another day); they’ll be expecting similar responses from the DUP when centenaries they wish to honour come up. And the very fact that unionism has even begun to look at the supremacist and seriously out-dated practice of flying the union flag on every public building they can prop a ladder against must be good news.
“But unionists don’t have to respond,” you may think. “They could take the Shinners’ quid and tell them to go whistle for their pro quo.” They could, but should that happen, guess who’s going to look forward-thinking and inclusive, and who’s going to look foot-dragging and neanderthal in the eyes of the world? If your opponent is generous in his approach to you, it really does make it hard to go on being all grudging and not-an-inchy. And if you keep on digging your heels in, you’re going to look positively knuckle-dragging in comparison. In fact, there are those who will tell you the Shinners have hit on the deadliest of recipes and are cooking it on every front. What recipe’s that?
Be nice to those who don’t like you, it’ll drive them mad.