Belfast Telegraph

Arlene would do well to take a leaf out of Ian Paisley's book when it comes to forgiveness

Former First Minister's coolness not the way to present unionism or win over hearts and minds, says Alban Maginness

Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley were nicknamed the "Chuckle Brothers", but they had more in common than their chuckling. Just as there were two Rev Ian Paisleys, there were two Martin McGuinnesses: one was bad and one was good.

The historic Paisley, the fiery preacher, was bad; the new First Minister Paisley was good. The historic IRA commander in Derry McGuinness was bad; the new deputy First Minister McGuinness was good.

Both had odious pasts. One engaged in active terrorist violence, responsible for much pain and destruction; the other by word, preaching and provoking sectarian hate and division on a mammoth scale.

But, as political leaders, they were prepared to abandon their pasts and take a radically different course, which brought this society to a better place.

They both went outside their respective comfort zones and led their nervous parties to a new power-sharing dispensation.

But what is disappointing about Martin McGuinness is not simply his failure to condemn the use of violence by the Provos, but his attempt to justify their violence.

He says that the circumstances in Derry in the 1970s were such that he, as well as others, had no other choice but to join the Provisional IRA. This is an argument without any merit.

Thousands of ordinary young men in Derry were not forced by circumstances to join up. Man is not an automaton that is unable to make a choice.

He and his colleagues in the IRA deliberately bombed their own native city to pieces, despite the fact that the vast majority of the people were opposed to their bombing campaign, which was not only wrong, but proved to be futile.

Just like today's dissident republicans, the Provisionals had no democratic mandate to do as they did, and Sinn Fein's undoubted electoral success since 2003 should not be seen as retrospective approval for their campaign of violence.

However, the departure of Martin McGuinness from active politics will be a major blow to Sinn Fein in maintaining its wider voter base, as it was him above all, through the force of his engaging personality, that represented the acceptable face of the new constitutional nationalist Sinn Fein. A smiling and all-embracing personality, in direct contrast to the harder, more sinister, personality of Gerry Adams.

It was this likeable personality that reassured and persuaded uncertain nationalist voters that voting Sinn Fein was an acceptable political act in favour of peace and progress.

McGuinness's IRA past was airbrushed from people's political memory and the easy, almost folksy, public engagement was an antidote to the uglier features of Sinn Fein, past and present.

He could not be associated with the grimmer violent actions of the contemporary Provisionals, in particular the murders of Paul Quinn and Robert McCartney and the Northern Bank robbery.

Martin McGuinness left office having successfully achieved the establishment and maintenance of a power-sharing Executive with the DUP for a decade. Despite the many ups and downs, this was a considerable achievement.

But, regrettably, his resignation as Deputy First Minister was akin to pressing the nuclear button because it has brought down all the institutions with very little hope of them being reinstated. It was an avoidable decision and was a disproportionate response to the RHI crisis.

There were other options short of detonation that could have been effective without bringing the institutions to their knees. It was an irresponsible act on the part of Martin McGuinness and, despite all his previous good work, his legacy will marred by the meltdown of the institutions.

The generosity and warmth of the Paisley family towards the retiring Sinn Fein leader is an wonderful example of the forgiving attitude that is required in our politics. It is the catalyst that we need to transform our bitter politics.

In particular, Ian Paisley's warm tribute to Martin McGuinness could be a game-changer, as it could transform the tone of an otherwise brutally sectarian election campaign.

Already, it has had a remarkably good welcome in the wider community. Arlene Foster could well learn from Paisley's thoughtful remarks; that harshness and coldness are not always the way to present unionism and to win over the hearts and minds of the electorate.

Power-sharing needs to be a partnership, fuelled by generosity of spirit, friendship and goodwill. Mere co-existence is not enough if we are to resolve the conflict at the very heart of our politics. This is a conflict resolution process, not a conflict substitution process.

It is high time that the iceberg of historic conflict and antagonism is melted, to open up the real prospect of reconciliation.

We must move from a peace process that has reached its natural and successful ending to a new and dynamic reconciliation process, based on partnership within the framework of the Good Friday Agreement.

Belfast Telegraph


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