Who will challenge Arlene if not Martin?
Posted By: May 31, 2016
Fionnuala O Connor. Irish News (Belfast). Tuesday, May 31, 2016
Smears on the web, like radioactive elements, have half-lives. Some will still linger like bad smells when the creatures who put them out there are no more. But the opposite happens to developments that their authors want to muffle.
Last week the DUP/Sinn Féin combo made an independent unionist their justice minister, after Alliance declined to help them out as before and first minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster made crushingly clear that she would not have a republican in the post.
The story dissolved, like sugar in tea, into gentle profiles of Claire Sugden topped off by a singularly sweet compliment from her to the revived look of a bright, new executive. Queue footage of mingled DUP/SF ministers in Stormont sunshine, all now right with their world.
Stirring vigorously, deputy first minister Martin McGuinness plus back-up Sinn Féin voices went from matching sweetness for Sugden to a contemptuous whisk at the SDLP’s departure for opposition. There was no lingering McGuinness awkwardness. He had nothing to announce as his gain from the deal. Clearly, the deal was everything in itself.
But the deputy first shrugged off questions easily. Sinn Féin chorused that the SDLP had betrayed nationalists, and eagerness to talk up the end of yet another potential crisis did the rest. Normality in the making, it was said, political maturity, hurray for an opposition at last to make Stormont accountable. McGuinness got no compliments though for a non-sectarian appointment, reaching out across the divide, any of that stuff. And he won’t.
SF jibing at the SDLP for going into opposition hardly fitted with talk of progress, the dawn of normal politics. But it did some more blurring. By this stage only nerds and old-timers, it seemed, retained clear recall of the previous McGuinness contribution to ‘normality.’ That came in the BBC’s pre-election debate, when Arlene confirmed that she hadn’t allowed the Lord Chief Justice’s proposal for fast-tracking ‘legacy’ inquests on to the executive agenda. (This was while she rolling towards single-handed victory at the polls, her ‘I won the election’ moment.)
Did McGuinness in the television debate voice regret that Arlene had blocked executive discussion, stalled the plan? He did not. He said ‘I met with the LCJ – responsibility for funding inquiries resides with the British government – whether or not it was blocked at the executive.’ So don’t anyone blame Arlene, blame the Brits.
The memorable line was the Foster ‘I will not allow any process to rewrite the past. I’m very firm on that.’ Innocent victims, said Arlene, ‘feel there is an imbalance, they’re not heard, there’s more about state forces.’ And Arlene decides who is innocent.
Not everyone listening to this sequence and later manoeuvring was confused. In the wake of the Sugden appointment, one floating nationalist voter who lost faith in the SDLP some time back said crossly that ‘McGuinness let Arlene off the hook. Shameless – he’ll be standing up again in no time for some victims’ group.’
In the meantime, McGuinness is off to the Somme today with Mary Lou McDonald and others. Entirely a good thing, though based on who knows what concept of Sinn Féin’s evolution.
‘That was then,’ he replied cheerily when asked in that television debate if he had moved away from his refusal to the Saville Inquiry to detail his IRA involvement: ‘this is now.’ Indeed. Playing chief stooge in Arlene’s show will stretch every sinew of the retired warrior. Participation in a cross-community Stormont at the cost of holding his tongue will further test Sinn Féin’s northern electoral support, and strategy.
Arlene’s ‘The DUP c’est moi’[it’s me] routine (must irk the colleagues eventually, no?) got another weekend airing, in reply to a question about the new justice minister’s talk of possibly ‘some constructive change’ on single-sex marriage and abortion law. Any chats Claire wanted, Arlene would be interested in, of course. But then, the wallop: ‘I was returned with over 200,000 votes. I’m asking people to respect that mandate.’
As the new executive was a-making former SF press officer Jim Gibney wrote in these pages, in a slot that until now has invariably toed the party line, that Sinn Féin would ‘no doubt respond to the hubris of Arlene Foster and Simon Hamilton who have said there will be no Sinn Féin justice minister, no money for legacy inquests and no Irish language act.’ So far, the SF response has been to roll over again.
When a faithful voice gets it this wrong, maybe that’s a real sign of ‘normal’ politics.