How do you partner the unpartnerable?

Posted By: November 29, 2016

Fionnuala O’ Connor. Irish News (Belfast). Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The very word reconciliation seems a curse on itself now, part of a formula blunt with over-use in conferences more or less academic. Or as used by someone whose name was first made as an IRA leader or an IRA apologist.

Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams, even when mainly trying to talk about a ‘new Ireland’, need only mention reconciling to produce the opposite effect. McGuinness never fails to set red lights flashing.

As unionism’s smoothest voice Mike Nesbitt chose to put it in recent days, McGuinness in the guise of talking reconciliation had ‘poked unionism in the eye.’ It was hard to imagine Nesbitt as personally stung. It must surely have been another slide back, as the Ulster Unionist leader is wont to, into what he supposes the UUP’s target audience of the moment wants to hear.

This time Nesitt was responding to a republican recitation of the basic clash between British and Irish allegiance. Though McGuinness could have safely claimed he spoke for a much wider section of the population than the diehard republican base or even the more elastic and variable catchment of republican voters.

Unwillingness or inability to show respect for and tolerance towards Irish, coupled with insistence that Orange marches are to be respected as unionist culture is a source of irritation or real anger for most people brought up Catholic. Depicting the mere aspiration to unite the island as illegitimate, even offensive is another dislikeable unionist habit. Some cannot even bear to hear unification mentioned. Nationalists find that offensive.

Irish unification and Northern Ireland in the UK are, plainly, irreconcilable. McGuinness said that the language, identity, culture and aspiration was ‘as valid as any other and needs to be respected as such’, which would require mature leadership from political unionism. Minimal stuff, surely? But whoosh. His particular offence on this occasion seems to have been twinning a unionist declaration of respect for language, ‘Irish identity and aspiration’ with his own and Adams’s shaking hands with the Queen and Prince Charles. This was interpreted, with a fairly bizarre stretch, as telling unionists reconciliation means accepting reunification of Ireland.

The ‘Towards a United Ireland’ paper that McGuinness was teeing up hits an unreceptive unionist audience, and sceptical others. But you don’t have to like McGuinness, or Sinn Féin, to see they need to challenge unionism, even feebly – even if it amounts to no more than re-declaring their republicanism. Everybody can see how little give there is in the McGuinness job-sharer. Everybody knows that McGuinness has to make the best of what Arlene Foster decides she can live with. Does everybody not know that he has to stay? That he isn’t going to walk, that Sinn Féin is going nowhere, that they are dug into Stormont as both hostage and guarantor of the southern Sinn Féin ‘project’?

McGuinness is stuck with a daft title negotiated while the SDLP remained the main nationalist voice. Is his job of equal status with that of the first minister? If so, why the damaging first words in his title, ‘the deputy’ or even ‘The Deputy’ with big ‘T’ and big ‘D’? How the first unionist First Ministers exploited the cackhandedness of that designation.

It made possible, indeed inevitable, the posturing of David Trimble as a prime minister and Ian Paisley’s belittling references to his chuckle brother McGuinness as ‘the deputy’. But McGuinness went on playing the good sport, smile soldered to his lips, starting afresh with yet another graceless, un-partner like partner. His role in his organisation is to demonstrate steadiness, pragmatism, safe pair of hands while Adams fronts up and supposedly steers the bigger, southern end of the ‘project.’ McGuinness plays the game.

Swallowed frustration going back quite a while has further thinned the McGuinness mouth. The  discipline (of secret army and fisherman) still holds, concealing who knows what. There was a telling but little-remarked moment a fortnight ago in Dublin, when he told the Public Accounts Committee that he had been excluded from meetings on the Nama northern loans sale by his then job-share Peter Robinson, DUP leader, first minister. But he hadn’t quizzed Robinson about it because he was ‘very strongly of the view that I would not have got the sort of answer I required.’ And he had come under pressure at the time to collapse the executive.

Now he isn’t supposed to talk about reunification, nor tell unionists their behaviour needs to change.

It’s tough at the ill-defined top – tougher still sharing with the utterly self-centred.