Belfast Telegraph

John Downing: It's time for NI political parties to return to their work

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald and DUP leader Arlene Foster shake hands at the vigil
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald and DUP leader Arlene Foster shake hands at the vigil

By John Downing

The infectious comedic charm of "Derry Girls" had almost lulled us into reviewing the Troubles in Londonderry in a much more benign way.

The comedy formula for the popular Channel 4 television series is the tried and trusted one of "Tragedy + Time".

But now we learn with a jolt that, while Derry had more than its share of tragedy, time has not mended the deep fractures in a still badly broken society.

When we stand back from the senseless killing of Lyra McKee, we see a number of clear underlying factors.

First is a certain surprise that nobody has been seriously hurt or killed by the reckless antics of a minority of wrong-headed and evil fanatics long before this.

There have been several near-misses in Londonderry in recent times. The most high-profile one came on Saturday evening, January 19, when a car bomb was set off in the city centre.

Investigations into that incident, and the killing of Lyra McKee, focus on a group called the 'New IRA'. This is one of a number of self-styled dissident groups which want to take us all back to our murderous past of fear and suffering.

This, and the other yob groupings, deny the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which was a beacon of hope for the "Derry Girls" generation. These so-called dissident paramilitaries are of course facilitated by the absence of normal political activity.

And this brings us to the second underlying factor. It is that the power-sharing apparatus at Stormont has been idle for 27 months.

The DUP and Sinn Fein are equally culpable here, for their failure to do grown-up politics and find the necessary compromises to overcome their major differences.

These problems afflict not only Derry but other communities still in ferment across Northern Ireland.

The mainstream politicians' failures to do mainstream politics facilitate the crazies who want to revert to the bomb and the bullet to achieve their deluded aims.

Just as those who took that path before them, they feel they can equivocate or explain away the loss of life and limb by innocent people who are unfortunate enough to cross their paths, or somehow become so-called "legitimate targets". It is abhorrent and contemptible.

But Derry has another difficulty right now: an absence of very strong local political leadership from which it benefited in other dark times past.

Happily, the architect of the peace, John Hume, is still with us. But age and illness mean he is no longer active on the streets of his beloved home town.

Incidents such as this also remind us just what a loss Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness is, two years on from his death at the age of 66.

The former Derry IRA commander had morphed from an enthusiastic participant in street violence, into an effective advocate for tolerance and peace.

Derry does have a band of active and sincere politicians, including current SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood, toiling in a difficult situation, and making this point is not an attempt to belittle their work.

But Derry clearly misses personalities of the stature, influence and skill of a Hume or a McGuinness at a time of ongoing crisis.

The only potential for hope is that Lyra McKee's death can serve as a rallying point.

There was a curious but inspiring moment at Martin McGuinness's funeral on March 23, 2017, when DUP leader Arlene Foster received welcoming applause as she entered the church.

The DUP leader's attendance and the mourners' response were a signal that things can be different.

It is time for those people who applauded to reclaim their city and tell those yobs to stop.

But it is also time to demand the restoration of power-sharing in Northern Ireland.

Mainstream politicians must get back to work.

John Downing is a political commentator with the Irish Independent

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