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Sentimentality won't save Stormont... but compromise might

Many lost run of themselves by reading too much into gestures of goodwill at McGuinness's funeral, writes Henry McDonald

As fresh talks aimed at rebuilding power-sharing commence today we should pay heed to the advice of journalist, essayist and controversialist Christopher Hitchens on public discourse: "Banish your sentimentality."

It was wise counsel that should have been adopted by many political commentators before, during, and especially after Martin McGuinness's funeral in Derry.

Because sugary sentimentalism clearly replaced hard-headed analysis when it came to some of the set-piece moments during the mass outpouring of grief for McGuinness, much of it - at least in nationalist Ireland - akin to the weird atmosphere surrounding Princess Diana's funeral back in 1997.

Just as Diana's death in a Parisian underpass launched a raft of conspiracy theories concerning an alleged British Establishment plot to remove this troublesome princess, so the McGuinness funeral sent some writers and observers into a paroxysm of benign prediction in relation to the all-party talks, which continued even while the great and the good paid their respects at his home and later at the church where he was eulogised.

The key moments inside St Columba's were when Arlene Foster received a spontaneous round of applause from mourners inside, and later when her potential new Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill reached across the pews to shake the DUP leader's hands.

These elements of a politically charged set-piece funeral were seen as "game changers" and "mood switchers", which would detoxify the atmosphere between the DUP and Sinn Fein at the negotiations back in Belfast aimed at rebuilding a fresh post-election power-sharing coalition at Stormont.

To be fair, it wasn't just sections of the media whose judgment became coloured by sentimentality over the McGuinness funeral.

Many rival politicians were carried away with the occasion, such as one party leader who thought it was great that Martin McGuinness was nice to him, while another non-aligned Assembly Member described the former IRA chief of staff as a "statesman".

Perhaps it would be worthwhile here defining what a statesman actually is. If you are looking for the ultimate personification of a statesman, then search no further than Willy Brandt, the former German Social Democrat Chancellor who embodied that noble post-war European ideal of reconciliation.

Brandt famously fell to his knees at the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto and in that gesture begged for forgiveness on behalf of a new democratic Germany for the crimes of the Nazis. It was Brandt who also took an enormous political risk with his policy of Ostpolitik, of reaching out, recognising and establishing dialogue with the communist states of the Eastern Bloc in the early 1970s; a policy that ultimately paid dividends and in the end helped bring the Cold War to a close.

Yes, Martin McGuinness, too, undoubtedly took risks, reached out and put his hand forward to former enemies in the second, latter half of his career.

However, he never regretted, as Gerry Adams so accurately pointed out at his graveside, the military side of that career with its commercial bombings, "executed" informers lured home with false promises they would be safe, and "human bombs".

In the post-war era Brandt consistently pursued a policy of peaceful co-existence with his enemies across the Iron Curtain. Only latterly, and mercifully, McGuinness finally recognised the need for historic accommodation with his enemies, the real ones, the British presence who call themselves unionists, and for which he does, of course, deserve enormous credit, albeit McGuinness and his direction of the Provisional IRA's campaign caused so much bitter and lasting division as much as it was murderous.

Less than 72 hours after Martin McGuinness was buried his party colleagues, and most notably his closest political ally down through the decades, Adams, were already dousing cold water all over a commentariat who were overheating with excitement about how the funeral could somehow act as a catalyst for compromise.

Adams, alongside O'Neill, chose Mother's Day to announce they would not be nominating her as Deputy First Minister, thus effectively dooming the Monday 4pm deadline for when an agreement should have been reached.

There would be no deal, the Big Lad and his team insisted, at least in the short to medium-term, accusing the DUP of bad faith on issues like an Irish Language Act and the question of legacy issues.

The DUP has accused Adams of losing interest in restoring devolution and seeking instead to play the victim card as he plans to increase Sinn Fein's influence south of the border, which Foster's party says is now supposedly the Shinners' primary battleground.

Given the bad blood and the toxicity between the two main players, Secretary of State James Brokenshire's extended - his blowing for extra' on the talks - looks like it will be busted too.

In that event the people of Northern Ireland lose either which way.

They can suffer a long period of direct rule from London ministers or endure another divisive, sectarian headcount election that will only end up in the same deadlocked scenario as before.

In a sense the outburst of kitsch sentimentality surrounding the McGuinness funeral can find its roots in the muddled thinking about the origins of the peace process. In the Pollyanaesque version of that process, its roots were solely the dialogue, the talking, the bringing in from the cold of the republican movement. Undoubtedly talks did help move the situation forward in the 1990s, although it was the secret discussions between McGuinness, the go-betweens and MI6 that really mattered, as opposed to the very public Hume-Adams talks which were running in tandem with the covert connections in Derry.

The sentimentalists also ignore the security facts on the ground by the start of the 1990s, and in particular how, as is now plainly obvious, the British security forces were winning the intelligence war with its formidable foe, the Provisional IRA. Infiltration from top to bottom and the thwarting of most operations clearly impacted on republican thinking in terms of seeking an alternative to armed struggle.

The strategists who reversed (quite brilliantly) the movement out of the military cul de sac did so not out of any sentimental or altruistic motive. Rather, they knew they were facing military disaster, prolonged terror from a resurgent violent Ulster loyalist onslaught and political isolation in the Republic if the campaign went on.

We are now close to a quarter-of-a-century from the year of the two ceasefires, which were real game changers in terms of the dynamics of Irish politics.

Among the old warriors there is little appetite for pressing the rewind button back to violence. Yet we are still entering a dangerous, fragile period in our history. Brexit has generated fears - some real, some imagined - among nationalists over a return to a fortified frontier with the south.

A Brexit-inspired rising nationalism, which is even infecting some of the best brains of Dublin's newsrooms with fantasies about a supposedly sudden enthusiasm among pro-EU unionists for a united Ireland, is starting to spook unionists. It is even inspiring talk of a pan-unionist electoral front if we go to the polls again.

In these uncertain times, those who voted for Agreements based on historic compromise and often painful concessions should be hoping that at least we do as Hitchens advised and continue to banish sentimentality from political calculations over the next few weeks and months.

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