Belfast Telegraph

Why McGuinness won’t fit in outside abnormal Ulster

By Fionola Meredith

Reaction to Martin McGuinness's bid for the Irish presidency once again shows that there is one rule — or, more accurately, one unspoken set of moral and political principles — for people living in Northern Ireland and another one for the rest of the UK.

The general response on the mainland is one of half-interested approval. Viewed from this one-dimensional perspective, the presidential run is seen as another positive step forward for republicans, an implied renunciation of their bloody past.

Those bad little boys and girls from Ulster are continuing to do the right thing, according to this line of thinking. They're not playing with guns anymore.

And so they will get a pat on the head and be told to run along and keep playing nicely. What had been a horrible, messy problem, which kept overspilling Ireland's shores and causing terror in Britain, has now been cleverly contained, the poison drained.

No wonder, then, that the British are largely unfazed by the idea of McGuinness running for the Irish presidency. Friends in the London media were surprised when I expressed some reservations about our deputy First Minister's audacious gamble.

Having fully accepted McGuinness' new incarnation as a peacemaker, they thought his statesmanlike ambitions were to be applauded, not questioned.

But would they be quite so sanguine about a former paramilitary chief becoming a global ambassador for the UK?

For the sake of argument, let's say the British people decided to do away with the monarchy. Would they then be comfortable with a former terrorist commander becoming the symbolic head of their armed forces?

Would they heck. It would be laughed out of court as an absurd, offensive, impossible idea. But they're quite happy for this situation to play out in Ireland, even to encourage it as another noble, dignified move by republicans towards full political legitimacy.

This suits republicans themselves right down to the ground, of course. McGuinness' run for the presidency is predicated on his achievements as a peacemaker cancelling out his exploits as an IRA commander.

So the Brits are happy, the republicans are happy and the unionists are (rather hilariously) being forcibly paraded as happy Sinn Fein bedmates, the ultimate guarantors of McGuinness' rehabilitation.

Because, if you can satisfy the notoriously trenchant, morally self-righteous and all-round picky unionists enough for them to go into power-sharing, then who else could have cause for complaint about murky business from the last century?

But what about the rest of us? Those of us who want to see power-sharing work have conspired to say nothing about the past, not ask too many hard questions, because we know that the whole shaky set-up is built on the principle of don't ask, don't tell: just be glad that things are moving forward democratically now and don't ever look back too far.

Yet McGuinness' entry into the Irish presidential race has shone a light on the strange and anomalous set-up we have here. It's shown us once again what we've been willing to swallow for the sake of an end to violence.

Of course, when it comes to Northern Ireland, it's never a simple story. The thing is, our rickety government works — just about — and Martin McGuinness' leadership has been an important part of making it work.

He has shown insight and courage, good humour and restraint, imagination and stamina. He has made hard decisions, supported good causes and stood up to former comrades who want to drag us back to misery and death.

I believe that his quest for lasting peace is authentic. But it's one thing to take a leadership role in the governance of Northern Ireland, in a specific political accommodation that was enacted to resolve the particular difficulties of this place.

In that context, his dubious past could be accommodated, if not forgotten; McGuinness and the republican movement were part of the problem, so they had to be part of the solution.

It's quite another matter to embody the civic values of an entire country, in seeking to become the figurehead of the Irish Republic. That is a step too far.

From diehard IRA commander to dignified peacemaker, Martin McGuinness is a product of the north.

He is a creation of this place and should remain here; he doesn't make sense anywhere else.

Besides, having taken us this far, McGuinness has a moral duty not to abandon Northern Ireland now.

He may be a former paramilitary, but he's our former paramilitary and we need him.

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