Arlene Foster applauded at McGuinness funeral

Arlene Foster
Arlene Foster

On a day when applause rang around Derry again and again, one occasion stood out.

As Democratic Unionist leader Arlene Foster walked to her seat inside St Columba’s Long Tower church, mourners clapped in a spontaneous gesture of appreciation.

In many places, a politician attending the funeral of a ministerial colleague with whom she sat in coalition government for a decade would be expected, rather than newsworthy.

Not in Northern Ireland.

During the Troubles, and even in the fledgling years of the peace process, it would have been unthinkable for the leader of the main unionist party to pay respects to an unrepentant former IRA commander.

In Mrs Foster’s case, the symbolism of her attendance at Martin McGuinness’s funeral was all the more powerful, given her own past.

Her late father survived an IRA murder bid, despite being shot in the head at close range, and she herself was caught up in an attack by the Provisionals when a bomb exploded on her school bus.

The DUP leader took some time to consider whether attending was the right thing to do. Her party sought assurances there would be no IRA trappings - assurances that were duly received.

Her decision was always going to anger some - a number of victims of IRA violence have condemned it. But other IRA victims had urged her to attend and, if she had not, criticism would also have come her way, arguably much more of it.

President Clinton singled her out as he began his eulogy to Mr McGuinness.

“I want to say a special word of appreciation to first minister Foster for being here because I know and most people in this church know that your life has been marked in painful ways by the Troubles,” he said.

“And I believe the only way a lasting peace can ever take hold and endure is if those who have legitimate griefs on both sides embrace the future together.”

Mrs Foster was joined at the service by former first minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson.

Like her, he had also shared the Stormont executive’s top office with deputy first minister McGuinness.

Writing about his one-time foe this week, Mr Robinson said their relationship actually went deeper than most friendships.

Mrs Foster had become somewhat of a bete noire for the republican movement during the recent Stormont election. Her description of Sinn Fein as “crocodiles” angered and energised the party’s base in equal measure, and many republicans attributed their good showing at the polls to the “Arlene factor”.

Whether Thursday’s events in the north west will have any impact on that narrative remains to be seen. She will resume negotiations with Sinn Fein in Belfast on Friday with only days left to form a new powersharing executive before Monday’s statutory deadline.

Hopes of a deal remain slim. However, similarly bleak prognoses have been confounded ahead of previous historic agreements in Northern Ireland.

As the funeral came to a close there were two more moments of significance.

Gerry Adams and Mr Robinson reached across the aisle of St Columba’s chapel to shake hands.

Behind them a further handshake, this time between the next generation of political leaders north of the border, as Mrs Foster and Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill stretched over to exchange greetings.

A service that started with a gesture of appreciation at the DUP leader’s attendance, had ended with another.