Sinn Fein displays new suits and roots

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The Independent Online
A defiantly battered black taxi and a geriatric Ford Granada yesterday chugged up the half-mile hill to Stormont buildings to deliver Martin McGuinness to the heart of the British establishment.

The dilapidated mode of transport projected a different message from the sartorial style of Mr McGuinness and his four republican comrades, for they emerged dressed in their Sunday best.

The flinty Londonderry republican, jailed in the Seventies for membership of the IRA, was resplendent in dapper blue blazer and grey slacks. Sean McManus, whose IRA son was shot dead by a UDR man he was trying to kill, wore a double-breasted grey suit; Gerry Kelly, sentenced to life for the Old Bailey bombing, sported gold-rimmed glasses and a natty black briefcase.

The clothes told the world that these were people of high self-esteem, striding confidently into talks with every expectation of eventual success.

The old taxi, its front number-plate slightly askew and a rear hub-cap missing, may have been designed to reassure the folks back home that they have not lost touch with their roots.

The incongruity between the good suits and the old bangers reflected the general confusion and perplexity about what Sinn Fein expects from the whole exercise. It is difficult to believe that they think the British will suddenly surrender and start pulling out of Northern Ireland. On the other side of the coin is the British insistence on a handover of IRA arms. Unilateral disarmament by the IRA would be a sign of capitulation, and the republicans have not capitulated.

The meeting took place in the massively over-majestic buildings which were for half a century the seat of Unionist one-party rule, and thus the symbol of nationalist exclusion from power and influence. In the past quarter-century this has been the scene of so many failed political initiatives that for many it has become an icon of the apparent futility of talking. But yesterday both sides emerged with the message that there is business to be done between them, and more meetings are to come. The republicans deliberately emerged from the front of the building so the cameras would picture them framed against Stormont's massive granite columns.

The talking has begun, but the shape of a new system, which might for the first time pre-empt violence and offer something for everyone, has yet to emerge. It will take time, judgement and luck for that to happen.