Arlene Foster needs to muster some of Martin McGuinness’s grace

Posted By: March 23, 2017

Arlene Foster pictured at Stormont with Sinn Fein Northern leader, Michelle O’Neill.

Fionnuala O Connor.I Irish News.Belfast. Thursday, March 23, 2017

When Arlene Foster said yesterday of Martin McGuinness that while ‘many victims are feeling very hurt’ she knew Republicans were mourning ‘a leader, a friend, or a mentor,’ she sounded a note all the more welcome because it was fresh.

If she could have summoned a breath of that generosity as the first minister, how different the past months could have been.

The Foster house-style, imitated in the brassiness of Paul Givan and coloring her entire behavior over the RHI scheme, brought the McGuinness resignation and the election result. Republicans were rewarded for ending the reign of bad Queen Arlene.

More than that, the effect of one person’s lack of grace was to turn southern indifference into at least fleeting interest in the state of northern politics. It forced at least brief awareness of Unionist intransigence, which may not translate into a lasting patience or any empathy with Sinn Féin handling of the next period. Southern political loathing of the party is too strong for that.

But human sympathy for McGuinness in his deathly illness as against displays of Foster behavior brought a wider awareness. A man who bore responsibility for many violent deaths drew renewed acknowledgment that he used his past to make a better present.

A woman who could claim victimhood forfeited sympathy and understanding. Arlene made Martin afresh for The South and darkened the picture of Unionism.

There are signs of awareness that she went too far, the strongest her dignified response to his death. If she can hold her nerve, she might find more support than she supposes.

The DUP kept its traditional hardcore in the election but failed to reach beyond it. Anecdotal and some evidence from the vote suggests that former Ulster Unionist support steered away from her in disdain.

How McGuinness conducted himself while harnessed to the DUP made an impact, yet the last pitch must have come close to undermining his own authority in his party; his ultimatum that wavered, dithering about the need for an inquiry. Then came that race to the cameras by Jonathan Bell and Foster’s embarrassing reaction. By the end, there was relish in the air for seeing bad manners and shamelessness penalized.

Relatives of people killed or horribly injured by bombs or bullets have voiced differing reactions to the death of the former IRA leader-turned-politician, some wretched with pain and anger, some managing to hold anger and appreciation together, some plainly and even warmly forgiving.

When Sinn Féin boycotted a radio program hours after McGuinness died because the presenter voiced the possibility that some might ‘detest’ him for his past, it was a moment of disrespect that their dead leader at his best had put well aside.

Republicans have managed to stay close to their communities with a mixture of fronting up demands for inquests and inquiries while they push on with politics – but then they have the advantage of another arena Across The Border. Unionists too often sound as though the Troubles dead are theirs alone, excuse and explanation in one for refusing to move.

A bomb made by dissident republicans exploded on Tuesday night; McGuinness went a long way to detach his community from them. A funeral in Carrickfergus today will have none of grieving Derry’s solidarity.

While Unionists refuse to recognize that The Troubles came out of crass majority rule, or take responsibility for the dregs of loyalist para-militarism, it holds back their own community. It also comes desperately close to making ‘their’ Northern Ireland unsustainable.

The McGuinness departure from politics and his death so soon after could still spur progress. It would have major significance for Foster’s people and her political tradition if she could keep on mustering some of his grace.