Hope springs eternal for the Chuckle Sisters

Posted By: April 25, 2019

Newton Emerson. Irish Times.Dublin. Thursday, April 25,  2019

Can Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill ever be the Chuckle Sisters, repeating the Chuckle Brothers act of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, their predecessors as DUP leader and Sinn Féin deputy leader?

The consensus is most definitely not. Foster’s tenure is considered a disaster due to fundamental issues with her character and ability. Rumors abound the party will replace her once serious moves commence to restart devolution, with Jeffrey Donaldson MP a likely successor.

O’Neill, while hardly a disaster, is not considered a success. Assemblymember Conor Murphy was the favorite to succeed McGuinness until O’Neill’s surprise appointment two years ago. He has suddenly returned to prominence in Sinn Féin publicity and campaigns.

Donaldson and Murphy would make a convincing partnership. They have worked together on the international peace circuit for years. But bringing them in to strike a Stormont deal would be a managerialist exercise of a type never before tried in Northern Ireland. Something would be lost from the traditional approach, which has always been less about getting the right people for the job and more about waiting for the wrong people to accept they still have to get on with the job.

Poison neutralized

The Chuckle Brothers act was strange and shallow but it neutralized Paisley’s poison from the system.

In 1998, UUP leader David Trimble and SDLP deputy leader Séamus Mallon visited the families of two loyalist murder victims.

That moment had power precisely because both politicians were difficult men with a strained relationship. The Belfast Agreement was reached one month later, with Trimble and Mallon leading its first Executive.

Foster’s potential to deliver a healing moment has been widely re-evaluated over the past week, following the murder of Lyra McKee. Standing alongside O’Neill, the DUP leader addressed an open-air crowd in a Republican area of Derry. Her speech was pitch perfect and applauded throughout.
This was not quite unprecedented. In 2017, Foster attended McGuinness’s funeral in Derry, shaking O’Neill’s hand and receiving applause from the congregation.

People in Northern Ireland remain moved by the emotional drama of reconciliation, which is all the more sincere if it is obviously painful. As an IRA  victim, Foster has the authority to carry this off with both sides of the community.

In Derry last weekend, the DUP leader said it was not the time to talk about politics but she hoped the vacuum at Stormont would be resolved as soon as possible.

Sinn Féin and the DUP may need to reach a bigger deal than reviving Stormont, such are Northern Ireland’s problems. McKee’s murderers are opposed to devolution, so they will hardly stop if it restarts. But whatever progress needs to be made, it cannot happen under Foster unless she shows contrition for her failures to date.

While nationalists would naturally welcome this, there is also a streak in unionism that responds to a leader being humbled and reborn. Foster’s predecessor Peter Robinson discovered this in 2010 after a family crisis almost destroyed his career. Proud and prickly, he bared his pain in public and became a more human figure. It is easy to imagine Foster earning the same reaction. In an odd way, her personality could be the solution to the problems it has created.

This is not a symmetrical scenario, as O’Neill is a different case.

She has been placed in a bizarre position and has struggled to define it. Gerry Adams created the post of “Northern leader” and single-handedly appointed her to it after McGuinness’s death. This was only regularized to deputy leader a year later. O’Neill had been agriculture minister for five years before Stormont collapsed but that post is little-noticed outside the farming community. Now there is a perception she is not really in charge.


What O’Neill appears to have been tasked with is reassuring the Republican base. She is from a hardline Tyrone background and launched her “Northern leadership” with an uncompromising graveside oration. Unionists were angered but O’Neill has not gone on to antagonize them the way Foster has antagonized Nationalists. Instead, Unionists have dismissed O’Neill as just another robotic Republican – as have SDLP supporters, which will be of more immediate concern to her party.

The McKee murder has once again highlighted the dangerous inconsistency of lauding violence in the past while condemning it in the present.

It is in Sinn Féin’s interest as much as everyone else’s to move towards recognizing the Provisional IRA campaign as wrong, rather than a tactic warranted by circumstance.

Murphy, an ex-IRA prisoner, would have the authority to carry that off.

Would O’Neill? She has never shown any sign of trying. Yet in Foster, the politically chastened IRA victim, she could find the perfect counterpart. There would be tears before chuckling but a new relationship could be imagined.

What can be said for certain is both women are wasting their talents and opportunities on a stalemate that has now squandered two years of precious time.