Belfast Telegraph

Never underestimate the power of a gesture

By Liam Clarke

Thank you, Sinn Fein." Those are words which Caral Ni Chuilin, the Culture Minister, must have never expected to hear from Ann Travers, whose sister, Mary, was murdered by Ni Chuilín's special adviser back in 1984.

Ann Travers's reaction showed the power of a gesture in politics. All Sinn Fein had done was moved Mary McArdle, the controversial adviser, sideways.

The decision may have even been taken on Ms McArdle's advice, or at the urging of the DUP.

Either way, it worked and took a little of the old poison out of the political system.

This has been a season for gestures. Ian Stevenson, the DUP Mayor of Ballymoney, has come out in support of Loughguile Shamrocks, the giant-killing local hurling team which has made it to the senior Club finals at Croke Park.

Not only is he going to the final, on St Patrick's Day, he has discovered a family link to the club and a local camogie team and has been pictured in club gear bouncing a sliothar on the end of a hurl. Still, don't give up the day job, Ian.

Stevenson was, of course, following in the wake of gestures from his party leader, Peter Robinson. He and Martin McGuinness have engaged in tic-tac diplomacy for months.

Robinson has attended a GAA match, McGuinness went to Windsor Park and is talking of meeting the Queen.

Maybe Mary McArdle is the latest round in this exchange of confidence-building measures.

For a politician, it is more important to be seen to give a lead with public gestures than to do good quietly.

As Machiavelli advised the statesmen of the Italian renaissance: "Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are. And those few dare not gainsay the many."

This is even more true now in the days of broadcast media, but it is a simple truth that Tom Elliott, the outgoing Ulster Unionist leader, never truly grasped.

He derided "gesture politics" and photo-ops, regarding them as shallow and tokenistic.

As Elliott saw it, he gave practical help. He has friends in the GAA and has helped individual clubs with planning problems.

He didn't think he needed to pretend to be a fan. That was why he refused outright - live on radio - to agree to attend a match when Trevor Ringland asked him to. Ringland resigned from the UUP in consequence. Elliott could easily have sidestepped the issue. Thousands of people believed his stance on radio provided a window into his true character. It built his public reputation in a way private curtsies never could.

Political reputations are hard to build and easy to lose in a moment of rashness. Gestures can even be dangerous if you don't bring followers with you, or if they are taken for granted by the other community.

Margaret Ritchie's decision to wear a poppy on Remembrance Day 2010 caught her party unawares and was neither repeated by her successor nor visibly reciprocated. Generally speaking, 'spontaneous' acts take careful planning to maximise impact.

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