Witness to a secret handshake

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WHEN President Mary Robinson travelled to West Belfast last week she was fulfilling a promise. Keeping her word has rendered her the most remarkable politician around these islands, and beyond.

She is not only a nation's head of state but an international stateswoman - though this seems have to escaped British officials. Which perhaps explains Westminster's confident complaint that she must have lost her senses when she went to West Belfast. Would it have displayed such disrespect to a head of any other state visiting its territory?

This woman has described herself as a 'witness'. She is a traveller whose mission has been to rediscover her country and who uses the symbolism of her office to take her into the hinterland where no president has been before. These encounters have lent dignity to that country's dramatic self-discovery.

Finally, her odyssey took her to West Belfast - the only place and the only people who had not been allowed to tell her their story. When Whitehall tried to stop her, she risked everything to fulfil the promise made at her inauguration to 'promote the telling of stories . . . of celebration, of conscience, of social justice' and, in relation to Northern Ireland, to 'extend the hand of friendship and of love to both communities in the other part'.

She and her entourage negotiated arrangements, etiquette and security with a population deemed the most dangerous in the UK. Since the British government would have nothing to do with the visit, the community itself kept the President safe, entertained and educated. Without denying West Belfast's political reality or support for its representatives, they celebrated the community's 'enterprise' - a word she transforms by her application of it to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the Irish.

Belfast is defined by, and yet is more than, the border that bleeds across Northern Ireland. The modest renaissance of the Irish language in the city is a clue to the expanding community and cultural formations that constitute its civil society. Ireland's sense of itself has been transformed by Mrs Robinson's discovery of the miscellany of organisations and networks that make up civil society and constitute the social base for modern Ireland.

West Belfast's redoubts of active citizenship, of self-help, song, self-education, environmental protection and job creation - were all displayed at the festival hosted by Rupert Stanley College, the adult education centre in Ballymurphy that received her last week.

But those networks inhabit a social space trenched across and around by the national question. The British government itself has sought to police civil society by stopping grants to those organisations deemed to have connections with paramilitaries. For a while this political vetting blocked the grant to Glor na nGael, the flourishing Irish language movement - though its great crime was not its associations but its success.

If the President was to connect with society then she could not escape the politics that infused it. The dominant political traditions of West Belfast are Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labour Party.

Sinn Fein secured 83 per cent of the Ballymurphy vote in the last local election. And although West Belfast's civil society cannot be reduced to Sinn Fein, neither can it be separated from it.

By putting herself and her status at the service of those people and that place, her calculations were neither capricious nor careless. Despite the protests of the British government, the woman knew what she was doing.

Calumny approaching a constitutional crisis ricocheted around her in the days before the visit. That was hard enough. That was political. But it became personal - her hosts in West Belfast would know then that she had then experienced the venom they endure every day.

Why was her visit so important? And why was it made so difficult?

It was important because Republican West Belfast had become significant by its absence from her agenda. She could not realise the promise of her great inaugural speech and yet refuse to encounter its leaders.

We know the risk to the President - she risked disgrace or defeat. There was risk, too, for West Belfast. Why should they trust her when so often their trust has been abused for the sake of propaganda? They have learnt they can trust no one but themselves.

When she arrived at the college she was welcomed by the children, the future. Inside, she was greeted by music from the great McPeaks, by the virtuoso pipe and fiddle player, Sean Maguire, and by the city's medal-winning St Agnes Choral Society. The British press was not interested in their culture, it wanted only one thing - that handshake. If it could not have that it would not have anything else.

'This was the first attempt by this community to tackle the marginalisation we suffer,' said Eileen Howell of Falls Community Council. 'We are put across as sub-human, but the President saw our dignity and our humanity. That is what annoyed the begrudgers.'

A measure of discipline was demanded of a community that after two decades with Saracens down its streets deserved to feel desperate but had to deliver decorum when the symbol of the Republic, President Robinson, met the symbol of Republicanism in West Belfast, Gerry Adams.

Here was a man who has been rendered invisible, inaudible, by Britain. He has been effaced from our political firmament.

His brief encounter was an episode in a great day for everyone in that hall. Yet that was the moment when they not only banned the British press, but put aside their own cameras. There would be no smiling snapshots of themselves and their heroes for their mantlepieces.

That historic handshake became an emblem for the demands they were making of each other. They knew that picture would have been deployed not to celebrate but to accuse. A community longing for visibility kept the historic handshake to itself. They had the discipline to efface themselves to protect the President.

(Photograph omitted)