Belfast Telegraph

Arlene Foster's presence at Martin McGuinness funeral hugely symbolic gesture to nationalists

By Edmund Curran

As Martin McGuinness is laid to rest, I recall my first encounter with him on the bleakest of afternoons in the Bogside more than 40 years ago. I had gone to Londonderry after Bloody Sunday to try and reflect the mood of a city destroying itself.

Inside the Bogside Inn I happened to meet Eamonn McCann and asked him if he could point me in the direction of the main republican figure in the area.

He suggested that I should meet a young man called McGuinness at Cable Street and I set off to find him.

The Bogside was a no-go battle zone. I could see soldiers peering down from the city walls through binoculars into barricaded terraced streets where the only patrols were of IRA youths speeding around in hijacked cars.

As I stopped on the pavement to note down one of the many wall slogans a battered Ford Cortina drew alongside. Three youths emerged and ordered me inside, one carrying a revolver, the other a rifle.

I told them I was looking for what I presumed might be their leader - one Martin McGuinness. They were more interested in examining what I had in my reporter's notebook and whether I was a journalist at all.

We drove round the rubble-strewn terrace streets of the Bogside with me in the front passenger seat and the youths with rifle and revolver seated behind me.

The journey took a frightening eternity before the old Cortina swung into Cable Street and drew alongside a young man wearing a heavy woollen sweater, leaning casually against the front door post of a small terraced house. My driver left the car to speak to him and when he returned he said: "Martin McGuinness will see you now."

What he would say that day was nothing that we don't know today about Mr McGuinness, the youthful, ruthless, revolutionary republican from the early-1970s.

His mantra was reflected on the streets around him and in the very fact that even the might of the Army, barred from entering his neighbourhood, could be beaten.

Mr McGuinness carries the secrets of the IRA to his grave.

Around the same time I used to meet up with the then unionist Prime Minister Brian Faulkner at his home in Seaforde.

There I would sit in his conservatory listening to his views on defeating the IRA, arresting people like Mr McGuinness, and the use of internment without trial.

The images of those bygone moments come flooding back for me as the Bogside prepares for a last farewell to its famous son - and a unionist leader says she will be at the funeral to pay her respects.

It would have been unimaginable for any of us all those decades ago, not least McGuinness or Faulkner, to have foreseen the seismic events which have taken Northern Ireland to where it is today.

Events which would lead to Mr McGuinness eventually foreswearing violence. Events which led to the Queen shaking hands with him and sending his family a personal message of sympathy. Events which have led to today's unionist leader attending his funeral in recognition of the contribution he made towards peace in 21st century.

Times, of course, have changed and are changing. Arlene Foster is the first female leader of unionism and as such is not personally under the same pressures from the Orange Order as were some of her male predecessors.

None of them could nor would have dared attend the funeral of anyone with even the remotest link to the IRA or Sinn Fein. It is another sign of those changing times that Mrs Foster can and will do so.

She and her advisers have weighed up the risks and believe she can carry through what is certainly a hugely symbolic gesture for any unionist leader to make.

By any standards, the DUP leader's presence at St Columba's Church this afternoon is another extraordinary milestone along the long road Northern Ireland has travelled since Mr McGuinness took up arms in the early-1970s and dedicated himself to the cause of violent Irish republicanism.

Today's funeral will be attended by many public representatives for whom IRA violence was anathema and who also recognise that Mr McGuinness could not be absolved for responsibility for the part he played in destroying the lives of people caught up in past conflict.

Mrs Foster is one of those who bears the mental scars of the IRA's terror. No one should underestimate how difficult it must be for her, especially given Mr McGuinness delivered the funeral oration for the man who shot and wounded her father.

The death of Mr McGuinness has prompted very differing and deeply-held views within the divided society of Northern Ireland.

It is against that backcloth that Mrs Foster's attendance at today's Requiem Mass in the Bogside must be judged. She, herself, reflected some of the differing attitudes towards the life and times of Mr McGuinness in her tribute at Stormont yesterday.

She was far from effusive, nor could she have been expected to be otherwise, given her personal experience at the hands of the IRA.

Indeed, some people, most notably victims of the IRA's campaign of terror, have found it impossible to go beyond their unforgiveness for what pain, suffering and death was inflicted on them or their families by the IRA.

Mrs Foster did so yesterday and will do so again today by setting foot in St Columb's Church.

She will be treading where no unionist leader has ever dared go before, and perhaps where some in the political party she leads could still not bring themselves to be today.

Set aside the fact that Mr McGuinness is such an icon of Irish republicanism - in itself, a huge hurdle for any unionist to confront in his or her political conscience.

Set aside, too, that he was a self-confessed IRA commander, the orchestrator of a long and brutal reign of terrorism, for which any forgiveness is nigh-impossible among many of the IRA's victims.

Setting all this aside, Mrs Foster's predecessors were unionist leaders from a Protestant and, more significantly, Orange tradition who risked criticism and expulsion if they had dared even to cross the threshold of a Catholic church.

David Trimble attended the funerals of three young victims of the Omagh bombing in 1998 at a Catholic church in Buncrana and faced disciplinary action.

Tom Elliott and Danny Kennedy were similarly criticised for attending the funeral in 2011 of Catholic PSNI Constable Ronan Kerr, who was murdered by dissidents.

While the rules of the Orange Order may be under review regarding attendance at Catholic services, as yet they remain unaltered.

There will be many public representatives at today's Mass, including world-famous figures such as President Bill Clinton, but their presence cannot distract from the simple solemnity of the occasion for the grieving family circle of Mr McGuinness.

As with all funerals, the reasons why people attend are many and varied.

For some it is in respect of a very personal attachment with the deceased.

For others it may be to offer support to members of the bereaved family.

Mrs Foster is at the funeral as a close work colleague over many years when both she and Mr McGuinness were in the power-sharing Stormont Executive.

She could have chosen to offer her respects privately by visiting the McGuinness family home. Instead, she has opted for what will be a higher public profile at the funeral.

Her action is likely to be taken as a gesture of redress towards nationalism after an election in which she was accused of a lack of respect towards her opponents.

The funeral comes also at a crucial time for the ongoing Stormont talks in which her political future is at stake, along with that of the power-sharing Executive.

Whether the cross-community attendance in the Bogside today, not least the presence of Mrs Foster among the mourners, makes any difference to relationships between the parties, the next week will tell.

On balance, perhaps in death Mr McGuinness will play one last contribution to ensuring that the peace process continues to succeed.

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