Departure will leave a significant vacuum

Posted By: January 20, 2017

John Manley. Irish News. Belfast. Friday, January 20, 2017.
MARTIN McGuinness’s health is an obvious metaphor for Stormont’s political institutions.

In November everything seemed fine, and the future looked bright, but the situation had deteriorated unexpectedly in a matter of weeks.

Mr. McGuinness escapes much of the blame for this, however, because while others have been half-hearted in their efforts to make power-sharing work, nobody can accuse him of shirking his responsibilities.

At great personal and political risk, he challenged those from within his own community who continued to use violence.

He faced down unionist opposition but also faced up to his responsibilities as a reconciler in reaching out the hand of friendship.

Too often, however, there was no reciprocation – a point that may haunt Arlene Foster and the DUP for some time yet.

Unionists’ antipathy towards the one-time IRA commander is perhaps understandable,  but Mr. McGuinness was an illustration of how people can change, and society too can be transformed.

His gestures of reconciliation gained him much respect within Unionist civil society, but this was not mirrored within the DUP and much of the UUP too.

His ‘chuckle brother’ Ian Paisley notwithstanding, Unionisms’ political class, failed to rise to the challenge, preferring to castigate and malign rather than acknowledge the former Deputy First Minister’s efforts.

His departure will leave a significant vacuum. Nobody else in Sinn Féin possesses his statesmanlike qualities, and few have been as candid about their past, which in an odd way gave credibility to his gestures.

Mr. McGuinness has said senior party officials have had discussions about succession and that he planned to step aside later this year whatever the circumstances.

Yet the fact that nobody leaps out as his natural successor speaks volumes about the dearth of figures of authority within Sinn Féin’s northern operation.

Those being suggested as potential replacements are all competent, but they lack the charisma that gave Martin McGuinness appeal outside his own party.

The SDLP failed to put a succession plan in place, and as its first generation reached retirement age, the paucity of remaining talent was glaring. It is still counting the cost of poor planning.

Arguably, Sinn Féin’s problem lies not in who the contenders are but in how they are selected.

The sort of democratic leadership race undertaken by most political parties is eschewed in favor of an anointment by the Ard Chomhairle.

In the near future, the party is unlikely to adopt a new approach, but if its vote continues on a downward trajectory, it may be an option it is forced to consider.