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Sinn Féin and the Royals: The peculiar journey from conflict to coronation

The republican-royal reconciliation is connected with the party’s wider political ambitions

As King Charles eyes Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill across a crowded Westminster Abbey on Saturday, he may experience one of those “isn’t life a funny peculiar business?” flashbacks.

He could be transported to Derry, to July 1994 when he visited the craft village in the city. The then Prince Charles was honorary commander in chief of the Parachute Regiment, the British Army regiment responsible for the Bloody Sunday 1972 slaughter, and many of the families and many more republicans didn’t want him anywhere near the Maiden City. For decades, “Para Commander” was a trope regularly raised by Sinn Féin against any nationalist who dared to meet Charles.

It was chaotic and a little surreal, he may recall. There were loud jeers and taunts and protests and jostling within the confined spaces of the craft village while at the same time local dignitaries were assembled to greet the royal personage and young Irish dancers prepared to perform for him. Police and nervous royal security types tried to keep the prince safe amid the hubbub.

Charles maintained his sangfroid and breezed through the frenzied occasion. The very last thing he would have expected in 1994 was that Sinn Féin, so prominent in that hullabaloo, almost 29 years later would be represented at top level at his coronation, First Minister-in-waiting Michelle O’Neill joining the celebration and even the very veteran republican and speaker of the non-sitting Stormont Assembly Alex Maskey turning up for this very British exercise in pomp and circumstance.


And that isn’t even to mention the cordial letters Mary Lou McDonald and Charles exchanged in recent times, each sympathising with the other when they got Covid.

There is a joke going around Belfast right now, which is that senior Sinn Féiners should be very comfortable with coronations: after all wasn’t Mary Lou McDonald effectively anointed rather than elected as Sinn Féin president with potential serious rival Pearse Doherty opting not to challenge her; and wasn’t Michelle O’Neill appointed unopposed to succeed the late Martin McGuinness; and while Lurgan MLA John O’Dowd decided to oppose her for the top Northern Ireland Sinn Féin job close to three years later his challenge wasn’t so much nipped in the bud as severed at the head.

While Charles may be having his flashback moment today, no doubt O’Neill and Maskey and thousands of Sinn Féiners and former IRA members will be thinking the same: how life can throw up the unexpected.

Sinn Féin is taking some gyp for its move. Dissident republicans expressed disgust while Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín said the party would “jettison almost anything in their quest for power”. He surmised that many “grassroots republicans” would be “very annoyed” at her attendance. People Before Profit West Belfast Assembly member Gerry Carroll said the decision was “utterly shameful”.

Many unionists dubbed her move as a “PR stunt”, but some senior figures were more positive. Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie said it was a “generous and welcome decision” while DUP MLA Brian Kingston described it as a “step in the right direction” but with a number of caveats attached.

And there has to be a meme, this one of O’Neill draped in Union Jack regalia like Ginger Spice while loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson taunted that he welcomed seeing “Sinn Féin becoming an integral part of the UK constitutional system, and giving their endorsement to the appointment of the new King who reigns over NI as a core part of our precious Union”.

There is absolutely no sign that any of this is causing Sinn Féin distress, water off a republican duck’s back, and this just a couple of weeks before local elections in Northern Ireland.

On BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback programme on Wednesday Sinn Féin MLA Conor Murphy matter-of-factly said it was a “tough decision” for O’Neill and Sinn Féin but it was the “right decision”.

In Northern Ireland Sinn Féin supporters generally take the line that the party knows best and while the visit to Westminster Abbey may “jar” – to use Murphy’s word – with some supporters, it will be a big surprise if there is any dent in the SF vote in the council election on May 18th.

This welcome diplomacy cannot be easy for Charles either, particularly as it was the IRA who killed his beloved grand-uncle in Mullaghmore in Co Sligo in 1979. Hatchets have to be buried on both sides, which has been happening over recent years, to such an extent that the then prince could joke with Gerry Adams when they met in Dublin in 2017 how they were both the same age, both born in 1948 but Adams just that little bit older.

This decision almost certainly has more to do with Sinn Féin’s ambitions in the Republic. The one thing about Sinn Féin is that when lessons are to be learned, it generally learns them. This is a journey the party has been travelling for 12 years, and it stems from the big miscalculation Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness made when the late Queen Elizabeth visited the South in 2011.

Then Sinn Féin staged a boycott, failing to gauge that the vast majority of people in the Republic welcomed and frequently were enthusiastic about the visit. This support was reinforced by her comments of reconciliation about Britain and Ireland’s “troubled past”, her few words in Irish, her attendance at the Garden of Remembrance and her trip to Croke Park.

By day four of her visit when she was brought to the Rock of Cashel in Co Tipperary it seemed the message was hitting home. There the seriously ill Sinn Féin mayor of Cashel Michael Browne, who died less than two months later, sitting in his wheelchair welcomed the queen and shook her hand.

Sinn Féin said he had breached party ranks, but there is also the suspicion he may have been given a quiet nod and a wink from on high to make that ground-breaking gesture.

Matters moved apace thereafter. The following year Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, with DUP First Minister Peter Robinson alongside him, shook hands with Queen Elizabeth in the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, “another taboo cast aside”, as Robinson described the historic occasion.

“I am still a republican,” McGuinness said on the day, which seemed to assuage whatever Sinn Féin and IRA discomfort that existed about the encounter.

The monarch and McGuinness appeared to strike up a surprisingly easy connection. On one occasion at Hillsborough Castle, McGuinness asked her how she was feeling, receiving the weary but rather intimate reply that one might give to a confidant: “I am still alive.”

There was even humour in these engagements. When she visited the museum at the old Crumlin Road Gaol in north Belfast in 2014, she was again accompanied by Robinson and McGuinness who both, separately of course, were incarcerated in the building when it was a working prison, at her majesty’s pleasure, so to speak.

McGuinness continued these exercises in royal-republican concord, even donning white tie and tails to attend the State dinner for President Michael D Higgins at Windsor Castle in 2014.

By late 2016 relationships with the DUP were badly fraying and this had an impact on the east-west entente. In November of that year, McGuinness at the request of Co-operation Ireland attended the unveiling of a Colin Davidson portrait of Queen Elizabeth in London.

Senior Sinn Féiners, complaining that there were no such reciprocal gestures from the DUP’s Arlene Foster, viewed it as an act of reconciliation too far. By January the DUP-Sinn Féin powersharing government had collapsed to the extent that Stormont was mothballed for three years, with the royal link suffering collateral damage.

With the Queen’s death last September, matters rolled back on track when the new King met the leaders of the five main parties at Hillsborough Castle, Sinn Féin having top billing as it was now the lead party. The comfortable chat was between Charles and O’Neill and Alex Maskey, while the conversation with Jeffrey Donaldson and the King seemed awkward, and all of it rather embarrassing for the DUP leader.

Optically it was good for Sinn Féin, so O’Neill receiving a céad míle fáilte from King Charles in Westminster Abbey today is not that perplexing despite all the surprised commentary.

Certainly, the change and evolution of the Sinn Féin-royal relationship over the past 12 years hasn’t upset Sinn Féin’s rise to become the dominant single party in Ireland, North and South. Indeed, it may have helped it in persuading some undecided middle-ground voters to throw in their lot with Sinn Féin.

One shouldn’t be too cynical about the party’s emphasis on reconciliation but attracting more centrist support in the South is likely to be the key strategy in all this rapprochement.

Sinn Féin is in pole position at the moment, but a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil-plus coalition still has the capability of wrecking its grand ambition in the next general election.

Sinn Féin pretty well has its vote wrapped up in Northern Ireland, but there must be more opportunities in the Republic where every vote will count. By attending the coronation it can widen its constituency, thus strengthening the chances of making it into government in Leinster House and of Mary Lou McDonald, in the role of taoiseach, welcoming King Charles III back to Ireland.