Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

What’s odd about Paisley praying with McGuinness?

So why the shock and surprise at the news that the Rev Ian Paisley prayed alongside Martin McGuinness when the Deputy First Minister's mother was dying?

Yes, to some it seems a bit odd. But the ex-DUP leader is, after all, a cleric and McGuinness seems, judging by Mr Paisley's words, to have asked for the prayers: “There were some individual matters that he had, home matters of people being ill and his mother being ill, and we prayed together. I did the praying and he did the listening, but he wanted me to do it. I said I can do nothing, but the God that we believe in can do something.”

What could be more natural? Yes, we know Dr Paisley's theological objections to Catholicism but, as many in his north Antrim stamping ground can testify, he never let that interfere in his constituency work. And what could be more natural than McGuinness offering his hand to Peter Robinson to commiserate on his very public marriage difficulties? Or, indeed, Robinson taking it?

Of course, both acts can be construed as ritualistic as a mumbled ‘Sorry for your trouble' at the bed- or grave-side — a gesture of politeness and of no lasting political significance. But isn’t that precisely the point? It is a gesture of understanding, of empathy. It’s, arguably, this type of unsung civitas which kept the show on the road during our darkest days.

The truth is that, yes even in benighted Northern Ireland, beneath the not necessarily untrue headlines about our hatred, many make daily accommodations with those nominally on ‘the other side'.

The outrages of the hate merchants, clear-eyed in their terrible certainty, always make the papers; the little gestures of toleration — often made by people rightly weary of crossing the mullahs of their own side — rarely do. As a journalist, I’ve heard countless stories of bereaved families receiving letters of consolation from those who kicked with the other foot. And most of us are used to ‘accommodation’. Funerals? Weddings? Christenings? There’s very few of us who haven't visited places of worship not our own.

The simple drift of time and tide is changing us all. Northern Ireland today is not the place it was 50, or even 20, years ago. With 10% plus of the population in ‘mixed' relationships, it’s harder to dream our paranoid dreams of planter colonialism and papish plot when their agents are our Uncle Trevor and our Uncle Sean.

Long before the Chuckle Brothers, the Stormont Agreement and all the blah blah talk of diversity, many were coming to terms in practical ways to new realities.

In the workplace? Maybe it was also a sign of weakness, a pathetic determination to keep to the mantra ‘Whatever you say, say nothing' but, really, a lot of our famed reticence was a tacit understanding not to needlessly provoke somebody who, at the end of the day, is as trapped as the rest of us.

None of these are perfect modes of reconciliation. A naturally reserved people, we don't really go in for falling into each other’s arms sprinkling pleas for contrition and absolution around us. It just isn't our style.

And, yes, vast tracts of this place are segregated communities where people never encounter their nominal enemy — and hence never have to come to terms with them. But all these thousands of largely unsung exchanges are something. It’s harder to hate something when it has a recognisable face not that different from your own.

Of course, it’s easy to dismiss these as micro gestures. Indeed, worse, as empty gesture politics. True, Martin proffering the hand to Peter isn't going to solve the policing issue. Ian and Martin praying, metaphorically, because a woman is dying, isn't going to solve ‘the conflict'.

But another way to look at it is that, at long last, our politicians are beginning to catch up with the real lives of many of their voters.

Which, when you think about it, is no small thing at all.

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