Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Why it's wrong to criticise Arlene Foster for not weeping buckets over absence of McGuinness at the Open

This has all the hallmarks of a non-story whipped up by Sinn Fein in an attempt to make the former First Minister appear graceless and bitter, argues Eilis O'Hanlon

Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness at a photocall at Royal Portrush in October 2015 with Darren Clarke
Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness at a photocall at Royal Portrush in October 2015 with Darren Clarke
Mark Carruthers
Eilis O'Hanlon

By Eilis O'Hanlon

Margaret Thatcher once quipped that, if they saw her walking on water, her critics would say it was only because she couldn't swim.

Such is the fate of the professional politician. As far as seasoned opponents are concerned, their rightful place is in the wrong.

Not for the first time, DUP leader Arlene Foster finds herself on the receiving end of this propensity right now for refusing to keen sentimentally about the absence from the Open championship at Royal Portrush of former deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

Appearing by videolink on the BBC's Sunday Politics, Foster was asked directly by Mark Carruthers: "Have you reflected on the fact over the last couple of days that he's not here to see this day happen?"

Her diplomatic reply was to acknowledge McGuinness's role, alongside her, in bringing the Open to Northern Ireland, before adding that: "I'm sure that there are many people who would have loved to have been here, but unfortunately cannot be here."

Cue the predictable manufactured outrage on social media, whipped up by Sinn Fein, which sought to paint her as variously bitter, graceless, mean-spirited, even bigoted for not paying fulsome tribute to the man who brought down Stormont shortly before his death.

What did they want her to do - weep buckets and declare that it was the saddest day of her life that he didn't live long enough to see the Open come to Portrush?

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There's something childish about this insistence now that politicians show fake emotion, as if they're contestants on Love Island rather than people who are putting themselves forward to run the country.

What we're asking them to do is lie by pretending to have emotions they don't really feel. Then, when they do, we accuse them of being insincere and hypocritical.

They can't win.

Who cares what any of them feel? Their feelings are their own business.

It's what they do that matters.

McGuinness's death was a personal blow for his family and friends, and that should be respected; but he was, for most of his life, a leader of the Provisional IRA, which tried to murder Mrs Foster's own father at their farm as she sat in the kitchen as an eight year old, and which later blew up the bus on which she was going to school. He then chose to be buried under a headstone which boasted about his role as a "Volunteer".

It's reasonable to expect the DUP leader to grit her teeth and work side-by-side with republicans, and to do her duty by attending the funerals of their elected representatives, as she did for McGuinness back in 2017.

It's quite another to demand that she shed some crocodile tears about the fact that he couldn't be there at the weekend "to see it for himself", as Carruthers put it, when there are thousands of people who tragically aren't around today, not least because of the IRA.

This all goes back to the "Chuckle Brothers" act between Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness when they held the offices of First and deputy First Minister. That has been taken as a template of how things ought to be, rather than a revolting spectacle which should have left most normal people queasy.

In truth, nobody seriously expects unionists to like republicans, or cares if republicans don't get along with unionists on a personal basis.

Northern Irish politics is never going to be an episode of The Waltons in which everyone is part of one big, happy family. There's no country in the world where that happens, anyway. All that people ask is for them to do the jobs to which they've been elected. Now, that's a whole other kettle of fish. They may well not be fulfilling what's required of them at Stormont, but then criticise them for that, not for things about which most people outside the media bubble couldn't give tuppence.

No one expects displays of emotion from the postman. They just want him to deliver the mail on time and to the right address.

The same goes for politicians.

It's certainly rich of Sinn Fein to accuse the DUP of trying to "erase his legacy" by not including McGuinness in a picture of the press conference a few years back at which it was announced that the Open would be returning to Northern Ireland for the first time in 68 years.

The day before the tournament began, the party's deputy leader Michelle O'Neill herself tweeted a picture of McGuinness standing on his own on the green with the trophy, praising him for having "worked tirelessly on this project".

She didn't mention Arlene Foster either. Do they really think we're that stupid?

After Shane Lowry's win, Gerry Adams also retweeted a message declaring that "without Martin McGuinness it wouldn't have happened". Again, there was no mention of Mrs Foster. Meanwhile, O'Neill stayed true to form on Twitter by only saying how great the event had been for "our island" and "the North Coast and Ireland". The verbal gymnastics on display were so transparent as to be hilarious. Have any republicans actually managed to utter the words "Royal Portrush" without gagging?

The torrent of sectarian triumphalism which has been sent Arlene Foster's way online, just because an Irishman got his hands on the trophy, has been something to behold.

The Provos' cottage army of keyboard warriors reacted as if a golfer from Offaly getting round the required holes in the fewest number of strokes was not just one up on the Orangies, but a decisive step for Irish nationalism.

They were the ones hijacking the event for political ends, yet she was the one accused of being bitter and divisive.

If they're on a hunt for bigots, some of these people would be better off checking in the mirror.

What's regrettable is that the BBC encouraged such a reaction by pointedly asking Arlene Foster for a personal reflection on McGuinness not being there to see "an Irishman at the top of the leaderboard".

It would have been perfectly acceptable to ask her a straight question as to whether she'd done enough over the previous days to publicly acknowledge the late Derryman's role in what turned out to be a hugely symbolic achievement for Northern Ireland.

Instead, the refraction of the issue through the irrelevant prism of sentiment and nationality seemed designed only to wrong-foot the DUP leader and, perhaps, bring about a "gotcha" moment.

Arlene Foster can be criticised for many things, but she hadn't struck a sour note during the whole week of the Open. This was just an attempt to pull a non-story out of the hat.

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