Belfast Telegraph

Mitchel McLaughlin has the perfect attributes for Speaker's job

By Ruth Dudley Edwards

I detest Sinn Fein, but don't personally dislike all its members. Although I know he is single-minded and ruthless in pursuit of power and I wish he didn't have any, I appreciate Martin McGuinness's civility. In my encounters with him, bearing in mind what I'd written about him, I found him a model of good humour and restraint.

That is by no means true of all his colleagues.

Gerry Adams smiles his vulpine smile in public, but if he's criticised he often loses his cool.

When you're as vain as he is and have such a sense of entitlement, it's hard to bear being challenged by lesser mortals.

I still remember with some amusement how, at a west Belfast debate, he leapt up in an audience of 800 of his adoring fans to denounce me savagely for their benefit, which seemed rather uncouth behaviour to a guest.

Mitchel McLaughlin is from the McGuinness charm school, which is why I was pleased he was Sinn Fein's choice of Assembly Speaker. Good manners don't go amiss in that job.

I want to believe he means what he has said about "upholding the independence and impartiality of the Speaker".

His approach, he says, "is going to be one of respect".

Until now, McLaughlin has not had the promotions his talent seemed to deserve. It's all very well having titles like general secretary and national chairperson, but why didn't he become an MP, for instance? For heaven's sake, Francie Molloy did.

It may have something to do with geography, but my guess is that he was never able to shake off being called "the draft-dodger", because he didn't have an IRA past. (When you think about it, it's odd no one's ever called Gerry Adams that.)

Instead, like Jeffrey Donaldson in the DUP, McLaughlin (below)had the unofficial role of canary-in-the-mine, sent out to try out new ideas on audiences north and south: if the reaction was favourable, the leadership would follow suit.

His successor is Declan Kearney, who so far isn't as good at it.

I have no illusions about McLaughlin's relationship to the leadership. In his time, for instance, he has admitted under pressure that he didn't regard the murder of Jean McConville as a crime. (It's theological: since republicans, by definition, don't commit crimes and Jean McConville was murdered by republicans, therefore it wasn't a crime.)

Still, better he tries to be positive, rather than negative, and I was encouraged by the grace he showed when he accepted the position of president of the Northern Ireland Assembly branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.

Indeed, he might be able to persuade Sinn Fein that it is stupid of Irish governments not to rejoin a Commonwealth with many republics among its members.

Now he's talking about having more symbols added to Stormont to make it more balanced, while insisting he has no wish to remove anything. Nelson McCausland doesn't think much of that, but I'm a pragmatist.

The Isis wing of Sinn Fein would like to continue the process of stripping away imagery that is precious to unionists. Why not give McLaughlin a fair wind and find out what he has in mind?

Back in Derry, Gearoid O hEara is the Sinn Fein candidate for Foyle. He's more the Adams type: I haven't found him actually rude, but in private he's rather good at conveying menace.

Almost 20 years ago, I heard him telling small children throwing stones at the RUC to return to the Bogside as "you don't want the international TV cameras to be seeing you behaving like Orangies". Yet, when the cameras left, O hEara left, too, and the children resumed the stone-throwing.

So, when he welcomes McLaughlin's comments as being all about "reconciliation and peace-building", I want to count the spoons.

What he's keen on, he tells us, is "acceptance of the cultural, political and religious differences … which, within the bounds of equality of treatment, means almost unconditional acceptance of the other". That makes me nervous.

I hope I'm wrong in thinking that O hEara is a cultural zealot, who will be trying to wrong-foot unionists. I hope I'm right in thinking McLaughlin has some generosity of spirit. We'll see.

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