IN the defining image of the week, Prince Charles became the first member of the Royal family to meet Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, one of the most prominent and controversial republicans of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
At one time Adams was thought such a menace to Britain that his voice was banned from the airwaves and his words read by an actor. It was another of those landmark moments in recent Irish history.
Apparently at the Queen’s insistence, the heir to the throne exchanged words with Mr Adams as a guest at the National University of Ireland in Galway. Following on from the public meeting between Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness with the Queen in Belfast three years ago, it was a positive move towards improving relations between the two islands, a sign perhaps of reconciliation.
For a moment, all sense of history was suspended. The two men locked hands for a few seconds, representatives of sides who until so recently were at war. Adams had before their meeting been seemingly ramping up tensions with references to the killing by the British Army of “Irish citizens”, But in the end it was a civilised, even sedate encounter. It was another milestone in the Peace Process.
The encounter was overlaid with deep personal and political symbolism. Adams, according to his former comrades was on the IRA’s ruling army council when the Provisionals murdered his great-uncle Lord Louis Mountbatten in 1979 – along with his grandson, paternal grandmother, and a local boat boy.
It was a black day for the British state. Within hours, another IRA bomb claimed the lives of 18 British soldiers. The public meeting of the two men indicated the possibility of some reconciliation or at least the expression of regret for what happened during the Troubles.
Not everyone was happy of course. The political class in the Irish Republic feared that the meeting would, with an election in the pipeline, merely enhance the standing of Sinn Fein at the polls. And there were protests from within republicanism; the hardline Republicans of Sinn Féin organised a protest in Galway, reinforcing their view of the current republican leadership as “sell-outs”, even traitors.
Meanwhile, relatives of those killed by the Parachute Regiment, of which Prince Charles is Colonel-in-Chief, on Bloody Sunday in 1972 held protests in Derry and Belfast. Loyalists too protested, appalled at their future King meeting with someone who they see as having blood on his hands and who denies ever having been a member of the IRA.
That Anglo-Irish relations have improved is unquestionable. In Northern Ireland, too, there has been tremendous progress towards peace and stable government.
But dealing with the immediate past remains one of the stumbling blocks. This remains a complex issue and the disagreements surrounding the issue are complicated. Some believe that the past should be laid out for all to see and that truth should be sought and told. Others say that it is something to be forgotten in the interests of the future.
And here lies the root of the Peace Process. The meeting will largely be seen by both communities as reflecting different experiences and understandings of their history. Indeed it is this living memory, which fundamentally divides Northern Ireland.
Differing accounts of the past reinforce the underlying legacy of mistrust and hatred. Unionists say it is not possible to complete acts of forgiveness unless wrong is acknowledged. They largely believe that those who were involved in acts of violence should be excluded until there is full admission to past deeds.
Nationalists claim that they are too are victims and have concerns over alleged collusion between the UK government and loyalist paramilitaries. The conflict reinforced stereotypes and emphasised the view of the other community as capable of appalling acts of violence, while confirming the status of one’s own group as victims.
The complete truth is of course, unachievable. But honest conversations, to establish, and as far as possible agree, what has happened should take place. Much of the argument has revolved around support for, or opposition to, the formation of some form of Truth and Reconciliation Commission based on the South African model. That may be one way forward, but is itself contested.
It is not a matter of tallying blame but rather of acknowledging that wrong was done on both sides, and truth is crucial to the prospect of reconciliation. That the future King and the leading Irish republican of his generation can now meet indicates how close relationships between the two islands have become, but there is some way to go before the past is confined to history.
Professor Jim McAuley is co-director of the Institute for Research in Citizenship and Applied Human Sciences at the University of Huddersfield.