Ben Lowry: McGuinness seemed to want to make amends for the past

Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness at Stormont in 2007 on the day power-sharing between them was established, a far cry from Mr McGuinness's IRA days. Photo: Paul Faith/PA Wire
Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness at Stormont in 2007 on the day power-sharing between them was established, a far cry from Mr McGuinness's IRA days. Photo: Paul Faith/PA Wire

If you wonder how power-sharing has had public support for almost two decades there is a poem that might help explain it.

It is by Philip Larkin, the brilliant wordsmith who lived in Belfast in the 1950s, and became one of England’s greatest ever poets.

Martin McGuinness (left) follows the coffin of IRA man Charles English in Londonderry in 1984. Picture by Pacemaker

Martin McGuinness (left) follows the coffin of IRA man Charles English in Londonderry in 1984. Picture by Pacemaker

The poem, about the signs of the gradual emergence of spring after winter, ends with the narrator saying that he feels like a child “... Who comes on a scene

Of adult reconciling, And can understand nothing

But the unusual laughter,

And starts to be happy.

Some of that sentiment, an almost child-like sense of joy among onlookers as they watch former antagonists bury the hatchet and come together, seemed to be widely felt at the beginning of the 1998 administration led by David Trimble’s Ulster Unionists and the SDLP.

The public goodwill that sustained the executive then drained in the years after the Belfast Agreement, as the parties fell out over issues such as decommissioning.

But the sense of hope came back in 2007, when power-sharing at Stormont was re-established, this time between DUP and Sinn Fein.

In the years of stalemate between 2002 and 2007, when the assembly was suspended, one of the then sharpest political commentators wrote dismissively that officials in the Northern Ireland Office were “hallucinating” over a Sinn Fein-DUP deal that would not happen.

I cite that observation not to say how wrong the commentator was – all of us who write regularly about events make predictions that are badly wrong – but to illustrate how unlikely it seemed that Sinn Fein and the DUP would reach agreement.

And yet in May 2007, the Rev Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness not only shared power, they did so with no hint of discomfort.

The sense then that political gravity had been defied has never gone away, particularly now that Stormont has endured for almost a decade.

The warmth between Dr Paisley and Mr McGuinness helped cement devolution.

Many people felt nauseous at the sight of a firebrand fundamentalist chortling with a former IRA commander, and the label ‘Chuckle Brothers’ was not on the whole an affectionate one.

Some sceptics were hardliners, who resented seeing their standard bearer capitulate in giggles to a bitter foe.

Some sceptics were moderates, who believed that the two men had played a central role in exacerbating the divisions of the Troubles.

And some of the sceptics were victims of the violence.

Yet I also think that sense of child-like wonder has stayed in the public consciousness – a deep sense of relief that the worst of the long conflict is over and that ‘extremists’ are working together.

Look at what did not happen after 2007.

The dissenting unionist view on power-sharing, represented by a man as talented and energetic as Jim Allister QC, never gained traction. Dissident republicans have not had electoral success of note either.

I had anticipated that much of the large core of unionism that rejected the Belfast Agreement, and that had ultimately toppled Lord Trimble, would in turn reject the DUP – but it never happened.

On election day in 2007 I attended polling stations in two unionist heartlands, Bangor and Ballygowan, and carried out an exit poll of 27 DUP voters, to get a sense of how many of them were hostile to a deal with Sinn Fein. Only 5 out of the 27 – less than 20% – were against.

After the election I interviewed Peter Robinson and mentioned this finding to him, and he said it tallied with their own polling as they explored a deal. Such data presumably encouraged the party to feel safe to proceed with power-sharing with republicans.

In 2009, when Jim Allister won 76,000 votes in the MEP election, I thought it was the emergence of a bloc of unionism that would oppose the DUP-SF coalition. But admiration for Mr Allister never translated into support for his Traditional Unionist Voice, which flopped in the 2010 general election.

After 2007 it was not unusual for people to feel extreme ambivalence about Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness. George Orwell called this ‘doublethink’, the simultaneous holding of two contradictory views.

Plenty of people viewed Dr Paisley with both contempt and admiration, and many people viewed Mr McGuinness with the same.

I do not find it hard to see why people admire Mr McGuinness, even though I think that the IRA campaign was vicious and unnecessary.

It seemed to me after 1998 that Mr McGuinness did something that many people do in various situations when they feel uneasy about their past – try to make amends in their actions, while not actually saying sorry.

I am not suggesting he is anything other than a proud and unapologetic republican. But his body language, in situations such as warmly meeting the Queen, seemed deliberately to signal that that chapter in his life is far in the past.

He passionately advocates Irish unity but his conduct appears to concede that it is not on the cards. He has even been warm about that enduring symbol of partition – one that must dismay republicans – the flourishing Northern Ireland football team.

Dr Paisley did something similar after 2007: he seemed to want to demonstrate that inflammatory rhetoric was only a part of his complex make-up.

We prefer it when people say sorry for something we consider to have been wrong, but some people never use that word, even if they feel it (some do not feel it).

But it is always striking when a person, while not saying such a thing, behaves in a way – over years – that shows they are at least aware that others feel wronged by their past conduct.

But even if I am right about such implied tact from Mr McGuinness (perhaps I am not) some people will have considered it to be pitifully inadequate and would want to see much more obvious contrition.

Victims, for example, for whom there is no prospect of justice for calculated IRA violence – and who on social media are expressing disgust that he is talking about his NHS care when their loved one was murdered decades ago.

This sense of injustice is even greater now that elderly soldiers face trial for fleeting decisions 45 years ago while IRA leaders enjoy a de facto amnesty (but not junior IRA men, who might yet face trial).

RUC officers in Londonderry were investigated over the Good Samaritan bomb by the Police Ombudsman while the people who planted it escaped justice (I would say that for every £1 the ombudsman spends examining RUC failures in their response to such acts of terror, £20 must be spent by the criminal justice system chasing the culprits).

That republicans have pushed this approach to the past detracts from any grudging respect that many people have come to feel for some of them, including Mr McGuinness, who seem to have been on a long and difficult journey.

It explains why, on page 13 today, you read of strong support for a civil action against IRA killers of three soldiers in 1971, and on page 8 of veterans protesting in London in defence of soldiers who served in NI.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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