The historic handshake

BBC News has just announced that the Queen and Martin McGuinness, “deputy first minister and former IRA commander” have shaken hands, for the first time, in private.

If you need historical background, then the BBC will supply it. What’s interesting me is the symbolism, the lived metaphor and metonymy*, in all this.

  1. The handshake is a physical connection between two people. In a chain of metonymy, the hands stand for the person, who in turn stands for the social group they represent. Today, McGuinness represents the Northern Ireland government and the republican political party Sinn Fein. The shadow memory of the IRA goes along with him. The handshake could not happen until that memory had grown faint enough not to overwhelm the occasion.
  2. As a metaphor, the handshake is about ceasing to be separated by enmity or hatred. Its potency was revealed by the disapproving commenter who asked if the Queen would wear gloves, because then she could remove them afterwards and throw them away. And by the need for the first handshake to take place in private.
  3. A warm-up to the handshake took place yesterday when the Queen went from a memorial service in a Protestant church to visit, for the first time, in Ireland, a Catholic church.  In another physically acted out metaphor, TV news showed the Queen walking from one to the other, crossing the gap between. The two churches are metonyms for the conflicting parties historically, while the Queen is head of the protestant Church of England.
  4. The Queen and McGuinness are now said to share a concern for a peaceful future. In the past, they were separated by politics, violence and ideologies. Now they have something that they can share. Long-term empathy builds on what is shared. Finding even the smallest thing to be shared is a key step in reconciliation.
  5. The handshake is being seen as marking a moment when the past is fixed, put away, so that people can imagine the future differently. Mostly our lives continue on roughly the same path but occasionally there are such moments where everything changes. It’s as if the symbolic gesture puts up a barrier to prevent past conflicts influencing future decisions. That’s the hope here – that the intentions of the Queen and McGuinness, symbolically and briefly joined as a unit through the handshake, will spread back down the chain of metonymy to the people they represent.

* Metonymy is a ‘stand for’ relation between two things: The Queen acts as metonym for the State.

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