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Human cost of public life can be high price to pay

By Gail Walker

Published 26/05/2015

First Minister Peter Robinson
First Minister Peter Robinson

It's odd how the old truisms about "what's really important in life" and "when you have your health you have everything" appear so frequently and with such dramatic force in our own everyday lives and then are all too quickly forgotten. Until the next time, that is.

Footballer Frank Lampard spoke recently about how the untimely death of his mother Pat from pneumonia at 58, had been such a shock that he has never since been able to shake the feeling, in the background always, that everything could be upset in an instant by unexpected bad news.

It's rarely discussed in public, but it is obviously true that, behind and underneath all our daily lives, our careers, politicking, relationships and relaxations, there is the low background noise, sometimes louder and more intrusive, often happily muted, of simple anxiety. Not about our own welfare, but the welfare of others.

The news that the First Minister had been taken to hospital with suspected cardiac issues was certainly one such reminder, and most especially to the man himself and his loved ones, to all of whom, of course, I send my best wishes at this tough time.

There have been generous and genuine expressions of concern from political foes as well as allies, and - predictably - some stupid, ungracious baying from nobodies on social media.

But, generally, his illness brings once again to the fore how much our political system depends on experienced, courageous and principled people who have "put the hours and the years in", engaged with the dreadful mess of our politics and our society.

There isn't one of the public figures in, particularly, the two main parties here who hasn't been up to their necks in controversies of one sort or another, sometimes for years at a time, and, for all the talk of thick skins, none of those periods of intense scrutiny passed without a cost to the individual themselves and their families.

It is easy to caricature politicians in particular; cast them as demonic, or monstrous, driven by evil, inventing a cartoon version which allows all sorts of verbal and online abuse. All because they represent people, our fellow citizens, who have political views simply different from ours. But the record shows that, once even the most hostile of opponents are in daily contact, in negotiation or bargaining, the cartoon versions quickly disappear and are replaced by real people.

It's easy to ridicule the McGuinness-Paisley rapport; just as it was easy to poke fun at Trimble-Mallon (and, lest we forget, much vitriolic "fun" was poked at those two also).

Peter Robinson's political and personal life has been subjected to some of the most withering attention of any public figure in these islands. No one would have been surprised had he chosen to pack it all in years ago.

If there was surprise, it was that he chose to keep faith with the electorate at that time. The human cost of his position in public life was clearly and courageously articulated by him both on TV and in this newspaper, in interviews which did, across the communities, add to our sense of his considerable depths and resources as a man.

While he is still in treatment, it would be speculation to assign his current ailment to any of those pressures in particular. But there is no doubt that the complex and very time-consuming difficulties in which our politics have been operating for some years will have had some role to play in it.

There are very difficult political matters to be resolved by the Executive, welfare reform being only one. Very soon we will be back in the maw of the summer marching season and the remaining contentious parades, very few though they now are, will again rear their heads.

Meanwhile, the challenging problems of how we respond as a society to the needs of victims of the Troubles and how we incorporate fair recognition of cultural allegiance and identity remain and seem to attract no brilliant or imaginative solutions from any of our intelligentsia or social commentators. They are, though, persistent intractable issues that need to be urgently resolved.

Many people have ambitions to replace the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. But I wonder how many would volunteer to pay the personal costs of the pressures, the expectations, the challenges of competency, fidelity, decision-making and their consequences.

Sometimes, I think if those price-tags were added to the nomination papers, those putting their names forward, election after election, might be much fewer than they are currently.

Of course, as the First Minister knows better than most, the business of politics goes on no matter what the setback is to individuals.

But let's hope, for his own sake and that of his family, his recovery is swift and full.

Follow me on Twitter @GWalker9

Belfast Telegraph

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