Belfast Telegraph

In a week of anger and recrimination, we saw true value of reasoned debate

By David McCann

Former Prime Minister Harold Wilson once said "a week is a long time in politics," and what a week we have had in Northern Ireland politics.

From the awfully misjudged video put out by Barry McElduff to the sharing of a controversial cartoon by unionist politicians, it seemed like we were just descending further into the gutter as a society.

Our political debate was becoming like one big angry town hall meeting, where everybody felt hurt and despondent.

By Thursday night there were no signs of hope. It was clear from the previous six days that not only did the two main parties have no confidence in one another, but wider communal relations were also sliding backwards.

Not expecting much, I turned on The View expecting more of the same. I had in my head the inevitable "whataboutery" shouting match that we were certain to get.

But (one of the reasons why I love politics) I was pleasantly surprised. Sinn Fein's John O'Dowd and the DUP's Edwin Poots rose to the occasion.

They didn't hide their disagreements, neither ceded ground nor compromised on core values. What they did do was actually give their views in a reasoned discussion.

For Sinn Fein, O'Dowd gave a strong performance expressing his unhappiness about the McElduff video, giving some very sage advice about politicians leaving comedy to comedians and speaking very eloquently about his views on the Kingsmill Massacre.

O'Dowd did not hold back in his condemnation, nor did he seek to completely excuse away the hurt caused earlier in the week.

This was the kind of compassion and leadership that we need to see from political leaders, my only regret is that we didn't see it earlier.

For the DUP, Poots did well articulating the unionist position in terms of the hurt caused and the need to reach out.

There was calmness and sincerity in what he was saying and he did a much better job conveying the DUP position than those sharing a cartoon.

If this week has demonstrated anything to us as a society it's that tone matters.

Politics is about disagreement, but it shouldn't be about disrespect.

I am not naive enough to think that one television segment will have a huge substantive impact on our current political difficulties.

We have been here before, the handshake between Michelle O'Neill and Arlene Foster at Martin McGuinness's funeral comes to mind.

But I come back to tone again. Nobody can question the republican credentials of John O'Dowd or the unionist credentials of Edwin Poots.

Both are seasoned politicians who are capable of taking the fight to a political opponent.

Yet common sense prevailed and an audience was treated to a rational political debate.

Our problems still exist, but hopefully how we conduct contentious conversations might have shifted for the better.

On Thursday night, O'Dowd and Poots did the state some service by demonstrating that this can be done.

Compassion, understanding and dialogue are the way forward in a divided society.

This week demonstrated that the public always quickly forget the class clowns and remember those who lead.

So in that spirit, let's spend more time having conversations like this and less time on Twitter.

David McCann is the deputy editor of Slugger O'Toole

Belfast Telegraph

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