Belfast Telegraph

Martin McGuinness was right: there can be no return to the status quo - but what do we put in its place?

Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill must decide if power-sharing can ever work here
Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill must decide if power-sharing can ever work here
Alex Kane

By Alex Kane

On November 21, 2016, Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster agreed a joint statement. Here is the opening paragraph: "Day by day, slowly but surely, politics here is changing. And it's for the better. The focus is increasingly now on policies and delivery - on finding the best ways to make people's lives better.

 The seeds of this change can be found in the Fresh Start Agreement a year ago and the Assembly election some six months later. Our two parties - along with Claire Sugden as Justice Minister - are now in an Executive facing in the same direction. We made promises to voters that we will keep - taking on the heavy responsibilities that come with elected office, governing in their best interests, tackling head-on the tough decisions. Others decided to duck the challenges and retreat to the Opposition benches. That is a matter for them. We are getting on with the work."

Even old cynics like me thought that maybe, just maybe, a corner had been turned. Here were the leaders of unionism and republicanism signing up to joint responsibility and joint delivery. Or, as one DUP MLA told me: "There you go, Alex; you keep saying we can't work together and we've just proved we can. So how about some positivity from you?"

Yet, just 49 days later, on January 9, 2017, Martin McGuinness resigned as Deputy First Minister; crashing the institutions and forcing an election. The language he used was astonishing: "At times, I have stretched and challenged republicans and nationalists in my determination to reach out to our unionist neighbours. It is a source of deep personal frustration that those efforts have not always been reciprocated by unionist leaders. At times they have been met with outright rejection. The equality, mutual respect and all-Ireland approaches enshrined in the GFA have never been fully embraced by the DUP. Apart from the negative attitude to nationalism and the Irish identity and culture, there has been a shameful disrespect towards many other sections of our community... and for those who wish to live their lives through the medium of Irish, elements of the DUP have exhibited the most crude and crass bigotry. Against this backdrop the current scandal over RHI has emerged."

When McGuinness later said that there would be "no return to the status quo," he was making it blindingly clear that power-sharing - in the sense we have known it since May 2007 - was unacceptable. He also knew that he was passing on the leadership of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland and the Assembly to other hands; to people who might not have the same commitment to the Executive, nor to working with the DUP. In other words, his last political act was to say to Arlene Foster, after 10 years of serving in the Executive with her, that he had had enough of the status quo.

Given their very upbeat joint statement in November - when not one word of his "resignation" concerns was mentioned - it was a devastating act. The man who had done so much to put Sinn Fein, the IRA and the DUP in the same place at the same time, was practically admitting that he had failed to deliver.

He was admitting that the relationship was fatally flawed (even if he did have some good personal relationships with Ian Paisley, who was toppled because of it, and Robinson).

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He was admitting that many in the DUP didn't even talk to him. He was admitting that devolution wasn't doing much for the Sinn Fein agenda. And, as I wrote at the time, perhaps it was the first signal that Sinn Fein was thinking beyond an Assembly; considering the possibility that something closer to joint authority would be more useful. Whatever the reasons behind the tone and language of his resignation statement (and, as he made clear, RHI was not the key issue in and of itself), it was evident that Sinn Fein was reassessing the purpose and effectiveness of power-sharing. It was known that elements within their grassroots were not happy with Arlene Foster; and it was also an open secret that she and McGuinness didn't have a particularly good relationship.

A few days away from the latest deadline and it doesn't look as though we're any closer to a deal that could be described as genuine, consensual, power-sharing. Indeed, we may, finally, have to admit that power-sharing in that sense is never happening. The election has ensured that "unambiguous" unionists (now thoroughly spooked by not having an Assembly majority and focused on broad-based unity pacts) and "unambiguous" republicans (sniffing Irish unity on the back of the Brexit and Assembly results) are more polarised than ever. It is not in their interests to help each other, so they won't.

Similarly, they can hardly hope to get away with a fresher than-Fresh Start Agreement: because nobody will believe them. They might as well give a Scrabble board to a group of blind monkeys. Even the people who voted for the DUP and Sinn Fein on March 2 didn't do so on the basis that they hoped for, let alone expected, a new beginning for government and for Northern Ireland. Neither of them wants power-sharing, as such; instead, they just seem to want a guarantee that they can pursue their own agenda. I have argued on many occasions - although always happy to be proved wrong - that power-sharing could only work if it was built around conflict resolution, rather than cementing conflict stalemate. Yet, there has been no real evidence of a willingness to do so.

Funeral of former Sinn Fein leader and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness in the Bogside in Derry. Photo Mark Marlow/Pacemaker Press
Funeral of former Sinn Fein leader and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness in the Bogside in Derry. Photo Mark Marlow/Pacemaker Press
The Funeral of former Sinn Fein leader and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness in the Bogside in Derry this afternoon. Pictured is Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill. Image: Pacemaker
Funeral of former Sinn Fein leader and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness in the Bogside in Derry. Pictured is Gerry Adams. Photo Mark Marlow/Pacemaker Press
Bernie Mcguinness stands by the graveside of Northern Ireland's former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness at Derry City Cemetery, in Londonderry, following his funeral service. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday March 23, 2017. See PA story FUNERAL McGuinness. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
(left to right) Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill, Gerry Adams and Mary Lou McDonald huddle at Derry City Cemetery, in Londonderry, after the funeral service of Northern Ireland's former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness. PA
The coffin of former Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness is carried through the Bogside area of Derry, for burial at the City Cemetery of Derry on March 23, 2017. Former Irish Republican Army commander turned peace negotiator Martin McGuinness divided opinion both in life and in death but on Thursday his supporters gave him the funeral of an Irish chieftain. / AFP PHOTO / Paul FAITHPAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images
The coffin of former Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness is carried through the Bogside area of Derry, for burial at the City Cemetery of Derry on March 23, 2017. Former Irish Republican Army commander turned peace negotiator Martin McGuinness divided opinion both in life and in death but on Thursday his supporters gave him the funeral of an Irish chieftain. / AFP PHOTO / Paul FAITHPAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images
Gerry Adams steps up to speak at Derry City Cemetery, in Londonderry, after the funeral service of Northern Ireland's former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday March 23, 2017. See PA story FUNERAL McGuinness. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Michelle O'Neill and Arlene Foster shake hands at the funeral of Martin McGuinness. Pic BBC
(left to right) Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill, Gerry Adams and Mary Lou McDonald speak at Derry City Cemetery, in Londonderry, after the funeral service of Northern Ireland's former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday March 23, 2017. See PA story FUNERAL McGuinness. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Gerry Adams steps up to speak at Derry City Cemetery, in Londonderry, after the funeral service of Northern Ireland's former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday March 23, 2017. See PA story FUNERAL McGuinness. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Funeral of former Sinn Fein leader and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness in the Bogside in Derry this afternoon. Photo Mark Marlow/Pacemaker Press
(left to right) Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill, Gerry Adams and Mary Lou McDonald speak at Derry City Cemetery, in Londonderry, after the funeral service of Northern Ireland's former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday March 23, 2017. See PA story FUNERAL McGuinness. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
LONDONDERRY, NORTHERN IRELAND - MARCH 23: Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams and Northern Ireland Leader, Michelle O'Neill lead mourners as the coffin of the late Martin McGuinness is carried to Derry City Cemetery on March 23, 2017 in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. The funeral is held for Northern Ireland's former Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness who died on Monday 20th March 2017. He was once chief of staff of the IRA but later became Sinn Fein's chief negotiator in the talks that led to the Good Friday agreement bringing peace to Northern Ireland. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
LONDONDERRY, NORTHERN IRELAND - MARCH 23: Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams and Northern Ireland Leader, Michelle O'Neill (R) lead mourners as the coffin of the late Martin McGuinness is carried to Derry City Cemetery on March 23, 2017 in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. The funeral is held for Northern Ireland's former Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness who died on Monday 20th March 2017. He was once chief of staff of the IRA but later became Sinn Fein's chief negotiator in the talks that led to the Good Friday agreement bringing peace to Northern Ireland. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
PABEST Gerry Adams carries the coffin during the funeral procession of Northern Ireland's former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness, ahead of his funeral at St Columba's Church Long Tower, in Londonderry. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday March 23, 2017. See PA story FUNERAL McGuinness. Photo credit should read: Thomas McMullan/PA Wire
LONDONDERRY, NORTHERN IRELAND - MARCH 23: Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams and Northern Ireland Leader, Michelle O'Neill look on after the funeral service at St Columba's Church on March 23, 2017 in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. The funeral is held for Northern Ireland's former Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness who died on Monday 20th March 2017. He was once chief of staff of the IRA but later became Sinn Fein's chief negotiator in the talks that led to the Good Friday agreement bringing peace to Northern Ireland. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Former US President Bill Clinton hugs Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams during the funeral of former Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, in St Columba's Church Long Tower in Derry, Northern Ireland on March 23, 2017. Former Irish Republican Army commander turned peace negotiator Martin McGuinness divided opinion both in life and in death but on Thursday his supporters gave him the funeral of an Irish chieftain. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Niall CarsonNIALL CARSON/AFP/Getty Images
The son of former Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, Emmet McGuinness (centre left) helps to carry the coffin of his father on it's way for burial at the City Cemetery of Derry on March 23, 2017. Former Irish Republican Army commander turned peace negotiator Martin McGuinness divided opinion both in life and in death but on Thursday his supporters gave him the funeral of an Irish chieftain. / AFP PHOTO / Paul FAITHPAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images
The coffin of the late Martin McGuinness is carried as the funeral cortege passes through the streets of Derry on March 23, 2017 in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. The funeral is held for Northern Ireland's former Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness who died on Monday 20th March 2017. He was once chief of staff of the IRA but later became Sinn Fein's chief negotiator in the talks that led to the Good Friday agreement bringing peace to Northern Ireland. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Former US President Bill Clinton speaks during the funeral of Northern Ireland's former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness at St Columba's Church Long Tower, in Londonderry. Niall Carson/PA Wire
The funeral of Northern Ireland's former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness takes place at St Columba's Church Long Tower, in Londonderry. Niall Carson/PA Wire
Former US President Bill Clinton speaks during the funeral of Northern Ireland's former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness at St Columba's Church Long Tower, in Londonderry. Niall Carson/PA Wire
The funeral of Northern Ireland's former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness takes place at St Columba's Church Long Tower, in Londonderry. Niall Carson/PA Wire
The funeral of Northern Ireland's former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness takes place at St Columba's Church Long Tower, in Londonderry. : Niall Carson/PA Wire
The funeral of Northern Ireland's former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness takes place at St Columba's Church Long Tower, in Londonderry. Niall Carson/PA Wire
Bill Clinton pays his own touching tribute to Martin McGuinness. Pic BBC
Martin McGuinness arrives at Long Tower Church
Martin McGuinness's wife Bernadette (Bernie) is comforted ahead of the funeral of former Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, outside his home in the Bogside area of Derry, Northern Ireland on March 23, 2017. Former Irish Republican Army commander turned peace negotiator Martin McGuinness divided opinion both in life and in death but on Thursday his supporters gave him the funeral of an Irish chieftain. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Paul FAITHPAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images
Former US President Bill Clinton (centre) and former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern (left) arriving for the funeral of Northern Ireland's former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness, at St Columba's Church Long Tower, in Londonderry. Niall Carson/PA Wire
Arlene Foster and Bishop John McKeown arriving for the funeral of Northern Ireland's former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness, at St Columba's Church Long Tower, in Londonderry. Niall Carson/PA Wire
Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill (left) Mary Lou McDonald (middle) and Gerry Adams (right) during the funeral procession of Northern Ireland's former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness, ahead of his funeral at St Columba's Church Long Tower, in Londonderry. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday March 23, 2017. See PA story FUNERAL McGuinness. Photo credit should read: Thomas McMullan/PA Wire
The funeral procession arrives with the coffin at St Columba's Church Long Tower for the funeral of former Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness in Derry, Northern Ireland on March 23, 2017. Former Irish Republican Army commander turned peace negotiator Martin McGuinness divided opinion both in life and in death but on Thursday his supporters gave him the funeral of an Irish chieftain. / AFP PHOTO / BEN STANSALLBEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images
Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill carries the coffin during the funeral procession of Northern Ireland's former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness, ahead of his funeral at St Columba's Church Long Tower, in Londonderry. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday March 23, 2017. See PA story FUNERAL McGuinness. Photo credit should read: Thomas McMullan/PA Wire
Gerry Adams carries the coffin during the funeral procession of Northern Ireland's former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness, ahead of his funeral at St Columba's Church Long Tower, in Londonderry. Thomas McMullan/PA Wire
John Hume and wife Pat. Niall Carson/PA Wire
Gerry Adams (centre right) and Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill (centre left) arrive at St Columba's Church Long Tower, in Londonderry, where the funeral of Northern Ireland's former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness is being held. : Brian Lawless/PA Wire
LONDONDERRY, NORTHERN IRELAND - MARCH 23: The coffin of the late Martin McGuinness arrives at St Columba's Church on March 23, 2017 in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. The funeral is held for Northern Ireland's former Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness who died on Monday 20th March 2017. He was once chief of staff of the IRA but later became Sinn Fein's chief negotiator in the talks that led to the Good Friday agreement bringing peace to Northern Ireland. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
LONDONDERRY, NORTHERN IRELAND - MARCH 23: (L-R) Sinn Fein Southern leader Mary Lou McDonald, Northern Ireland Leader, Michelle O'Neill and Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams arrive at St Columba's Church on March 23, 2017 in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. The funeral is held for Northern Ireland's former Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness who died on Monday 20th March 2017. He was once chief of staff of the IRA but later became Sinn Fein's chief negotiator in the talks that led to the Good Friday agreement bringing peace to Northern Ireland. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Former US President Bill Clinton (left) and former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern arriving for the funeral of Northern Ireland's former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness, at St Columba's Church Long Tower, in Londonderry. Niall Carson/PA Wire
The funeral procession arrives with the coffin at St Columba's Church Long Tower for the funeral of former Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness in Derry, Northern Ireland on March 23, 2017. Former Irish Republican Army commander turned peace negotiator Martin McGuinness divided opinion both in life and in death but on Thursday his supporters gave him the funeral of an Irish chieftain. / AFP PHOTO / BEN STANSALLBEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images
LONDONDERRY, NORTHERN IRELAND - MARCH 23: Mourners gather outside of St Columba's Church on March 23, 2017 in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. The funeral is held for Northern Ireland's former Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness who died on Monday 20th March 2017. He was once chief of staff of the IRA but later became Sinn Fein's chief negotiator in the talks that led to the Good Friday agreement bringing peace to Northern Ireland. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
The coffin of Northern Ireland's former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness is carried down Westland Street into the Bogside ahead of his funeral at St Columba's Church Long Tower, in Londonderry.
The coffin of Martin McGuinness is carried past the Brandywell area of Londonderry ahead of his funeral at St Columba's Church Long Tower, in the city. Niall Carson/PA Wire
The funeral cortege of Martin McGuinness passes through the streets of Derry on March 23, 2017 in Londonderry.
The funeral of Martin McGuinness takes place in Derry, March 23, 2017
LONDONDERRY, NORTHERN IRELAND - MARCH 23: Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams hugs a mourner outside Martin McGuinness' house on March 23, 2017 in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
Former Taoiseach Brian Cowen (centre) arriving for the funeral of Northern Ireland's former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness, at St Columba's Church Long Tower, in Londonderry. Niall Carson/PA Wire
Taoiseach Enda Kenny (centre) arriving for the funeral of Northern Ireland's former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness, at St Columba's Church Long Tower, in Londonderry. Niall Carson/PA Wire
Chief executive of the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) John Delaney arriving for the funeral of Northern Ireland's former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness, at St Columba's Church Long Tower, in Londonderry. Niall Carson/PA Wire
PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton (centre) arriving for the funeral of Northern Ireland's former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness, at St Columba's Church Long Tower, in Londonderry. Niall Carson/PA Wire
Director of Public Prosecutions Barra McGrory arriving for the funeral of Northern Ireland's former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness, at St Columba's Church Long Tower, in Londonderry. Niall Carson/PA Wire
Alastair Campbell arriving for the funeral of Northern Ireland's former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness, at St Columba's Church Long Tower, in Londonderry. Niall Carson/PA Wire
Alex Salmond arriving for the funeral of Northern Ireland's former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness, at St Columba's Church Long Tower, in Londonderry. : Niall Carson/PA Wire
(From the left) Ireland Funds John Fitzpatrick, SDLP MP Mark Durkan and SDLP leader Colum Eastwood arriving for the funeral of Northern Ireland's former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness, at St Columba's Church Long Tower, in Londonderry. Niall Carson/PA Wire
Mourners hold a banner for the late Martin McGuinness as they make their way to the funeral on March 23, 2017 in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. The funeral is held for Northern Ireland's former Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness who died on Monday 20th March 2017. He was once chief of staff of the IRA but later became Sinn Fein's chief negotiator in the talks that led to the Good Friday agreement bringing peace to Northern Ireland. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
Crowds gather outside the home of Martin McGuinness ahead of his funeral.
Bill Clinton sets off from Dublin Airport for Derry, and the funeral of Martin McGuinness
Mourners gather at the home of former Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness in the Bogside area of Derry on March 22, 2017.
A sign directing mourners to the wake of former Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness is pictured in the Bogside area of Derry.
A Republican mural in the Bogside area of Derry
A man walks past a Republican mural in the Bogside area of Derry on March 22, 2017.
A man paints the 'Free Derry' corner wall in the Bogside ahead of the Funeral of Martin McGuinness. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
A long line of mourners queue to pay ther respects at the home of Martin McGuinness on March 22, 2017 in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
The coffin of Northern Ireland's former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness is carried to his home in Londonderry by Gerry Adams and Michelle O'Neill after he died aged 66. Pic: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams (R) and Northern Sinn Fein leader Michelle O'Neill (L) lay the Irish flag on the coffin of former Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness before it is processed through the Bogside neighbourhood of Derry to his family home on March 21, 2017. AFP/Getty Images

That said, Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill have to rise to the challenge. It can't be taken for granted that the institutions can survive. And they certainly won't survive if the big two parties don't jointly own them and jointly deliver a Programme for Government; along with an overarching, costed and clearly directed strategy for dealing with the "big ticket" problems of legacy, paramilitarism, narrative et al. More importantly - they need to jointly implement any new agreement.

I don't know if it was RHI, his relationship with Foster, or the brutal realities of his illness that proved the straw that broke McGuinness's back about the ongoing problems with power-sharing. But something did. And that something has left us with one unavoidable question: can power-sharing ever work here?

Northern Ireland is better than it used to be. The Assembly probably owes its existence to McGuinness. That's why the anger and frustration in his resignation letter matter so much. And he was right: there can be no return to the former status quo.

So, here's the other key question: what do Arlene and Michelle want the new status quo to be?

Fionola Meredith returns next week

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