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Martin and Ian on the couch

Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness
Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness

Oxford psychologist Dr Peter Collett analyses the relationship between Paisley and McGuinness in tonight's BBC One NI documentary The Honeymooners and says it's abundantly clear there was a real chemistry between the Chuckles

Now that the 'Chuckle Brothers' chapter has come to an end, it's worth taking a closer look at the remarkable relationship that developed between Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness over the past year.

Here are two men who spent the better part of their lives locked in conflict, but who managed to defy all expectations and forge a close working relationship filled with laughter. How was this possible? Was there something special about their relationship? Was it genuine, or were they simply putting on a show in order to further their own political objectives?

As a psychologist it's my job to decipher people's actions — to try to infer their thoughts, feelings and intentions from their utterances, speech style and body language.

Politicians are perfect for this kind of analysis because they have a strong desire to be admired, liked and believed, and because they're constantly being recorded. Politicians pride themselves on keeping their cards close to their chest, but their actions invariably give them away and reveal their true feelings.

A few weeks ago I was at home in Oxford when I received a telephone call from independent production company, Below The Radar, inviting me to take part in The Honeymooners, a BBC Northern Ireland television programme about the relationship between Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness. I jumped at the opportunity, but I had to confess that, like most English people, my knowledge of Northern Ireland politics was fairly superficial. "Don't worry about that," I was told, "it'll probably put you at an advantage!"

Watching the recordings I couldn't help being struck by the deluge of good-natured banter between Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley. One of them, more usually Paisley, would crack a joke and they'd both end up in stitches. And a few minutes later the same thing would happen all over again.

The comparison with the Chuckle Brothers is very apt. But it overlooks the essential purpose of this type of humour, which is to redefine the political process.

By introducing humour, Paisley and McGuinness created the equivalent of a plate tectonic shift in Northern Ireland politics — they replaced the sombre, monochrome style of the old days with one that was modern and inviting, and which offered hope for the future. But humour also performs a more immediate role — it temporarily enhances the status of the person who manages to make others laugh.

That's another reason why McGuinness and especially Paisley liked to be amusing — it elicited laughter which made them appear and feel more important. If you watch Paisley closely, you'll see that he was quite happy to encourage people to enjoy his wisecracks. Having said something amusing, he'd pointedly glance at people nearby, or tap someone on the arm or give them a nudge in order to cue them up for laughter.

But it's important to note that when Paisley did say something funny, he frequently followed this up with a serious remark. This shows that for him humour wasn't always an end in itself — it was often a means to a political end.

One of the things we all want to know is whether McGuinness and Paisley really got along — was there any real affection between them?

When reporters asked them about their relationship, they tried to play it down. McGuinness claimed that it was "on the basis of business", while Paisley insisted that they were involved in a "work-in", not a "love-in".

If you watch Paisley and McGuinness closely you'll discover that their relationship was much deeper than they cared to acknowledge.

There were lots of clues to show that there was real chemistry between them. For a start, they were very relaxed together, and when they were unaware they were being observed they were attentive towards each other and there was lots of smiling. When they were interviewed together they were constantly reinforcing each other with head-nods and other signs of approval.

McGuinness and Paisley also showed high levels of what psychologists call " synchrony". People who enjoy a close relationship tend to co-ordinate their actions, giving the impression that they're dancing, as it were, to the same tune. Unsuccessful relationships, on the other hand, are often characterised by a lack of synchrony, with people pulling in different directions, as if they were dancing to different tunes.

One place to look out for synchrony is in conversations. When two people are taking turns in conversation, three things can happen — there can be a delay between one person ending and the other starting, there can be an overlap, where one person starts before the other has ended, or there can be what psychologists call a "smooth transition", where one person starts speaking at the precise moment that the other stops. Paisley and McGuinness produced lots of smooth transitions when they were being interviewed together. This shows that, even though they may not have recognised it, they were on the same wavelength.

What's astonishing is that they were able to produce these smooth transitions when they were standing side by side and looking straight ahead — in other words, without using any visual cues to help them synchronise with each other! Although both McGuinness and Paisley had a strong sensitivity to each other, they also have their own idiosyncratic mannerisms.

Paisley, for example, is inclined to drum his fingers very lightly on the table when he wants someone to stop speaking, while McGuinness has a habit of rubbing his hands together when he is looking forward to meeting someone. I'm sure that neither of them is aware of these mannerisms. It's easy to think of politics solely in terms of principles and policies, and to overlook the defining role of things like speech style and body language.

It's often tiny aspects of behaviour that reveal the true nature of relations between politicians. It's also evident that unremarkable behaviours like laughter have the power to completely transform the political process.

It's largely because of laughter that politics in Northern Ireland will never be the same again.

The Honeymooners, BBC One Northern Ireland tonight, 9pm

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