Path to peace marked with clasp of hands

It used to be the Freemasons who were famous for their handshakes — but that was before the Irish peace process came along.

From the early 1990s the efforts to end the Troubles saw a string of important political encounters — each sealed with a clasp of hands.

But the mutual respect implied by the peaceful gesture has often been difficult for some to accept.

When Tony Blair first shook the hand of Gerry Adams in a private meeting in Belfast in 1997, the then British prime minister was later met by angry unionists who pelted him with surgical gloves.

Blair, who helped secure the Good Friday peace deal in 1998, said at the time of the handshake: “I treated Gerry Adams and the members of Sinn Féin in the same way that I treat any human being.”

An earlier historic handshake was played out in public — albeit under the pretence that it was a chance encounter.

US president Bill Clinton jumped from his motorcade in Belfast’s republican heartland of the Falls Rd to pay an apparently impromptu visit to a bakery in 1995. But on the street, he bumped into a bearded local and the pair exchanged greetings.

The handshake between Clinton and Gerry Adams was captured on film and became a defining image of the early peace process.

But if meetings between top republicans and world leaders eventually became commonplace, the sight of old foes coming together in Belfast retained the ability to astound viewers.

In 2007 there were gasps at the TV footage of Adams and Ian Paisley sitting elbow-to-elbow as they set the seal on a power-sharing deal between their parties.

There was also shock at the subsequent image of Martin McGuinness and the arch-unionist laughing together as they went on to firmly establish their Stormont government.

Later, Paisley’s successor Peter Robinson was rocked by the scandal surrounding an affair between his wife and a teenager and received support from McGuinness.

Robinson recounted his decision to exchange a handshake with his former political enemy: “He expressed sympathy to me and put out his hand. I thought it would be wrong of me in those circumstances to do anything other than that.”

However, not everyone has welcomed the rise of the handshake.

Ken Maginnis — the unionist peer — once accused Adams of “collecting handshakes like a Comanche collects scalps”.


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