RARELY IS THERE a day that comes along that sums up exactly where we are in Northern Ireland politics and last Saturday was such a day. We had two leaders, facing two very important decisions to make.
On the unionist side, Peter Robinson, who in light of a Belfast City Council motion faced a choice of whether or not to meet the Pope if he came to Northern Ireland; and on republicanism’s bench, Martin McGuinness, who had to choose whether or not to play a role in President Michael D Higgins’ State visit to Britain this week. It was truly a tale of two leaders and their approaches to different aspects of modern politics.
Let’s begin with the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness.
Since he took on the post in 2007, McGuinness has always tried to play the role of statesman by embracing his relationship with Ian Paisley, and even in the 2011 Assembly election constantly referred to his partnership with Peter Robinson with references to ‘Peter and I’ constantly reiterated during TV debates. Aside from 2011, when Queen Elizabeth visited Ireland, McGuinness has always, with a certain ease, been able to deal effectively with people who just a few years ago you could never have imagined him spending any time with.
I remember watching with near astonishment as the images were beaming across my TV the sight of him shaking Queen Elizabeth’s hand in the Lyric Theatre in 2012. Yet, he did it, life went on and no apparent backlash from either within his party or the general public followed. What happened was some positive headlines about Northern Ireland were generated and some amount of goodwill, all with a simple handshake.
Then, consider his ability to deal with hardliners within Irish republicanism. Following the murder of two British soldiers in 2009 by dissident republicans, McGuinness delivered the strongest possible condemnation calling the perpetrators ‘traitors to Ireland.’ Even the humblest student of Irish politics would only need to scan a basic history of the Troubles to grasp the significance of this moment. It hasn’t been all plain sailing and, yes, there have at times been difficulties but even a critic has to acknowledge that, overall, McGuinness has handled some difficult events well.
Then, we have the First Minister, Peter Robinson.
Robinson has during his time as DUP leader attempted to shift the party away from the right to the centre ground. He has embraced bodies such as the GAA, proclaiming what valuable cultural institutions they are and that a good relationship with the Irish government is a priority for his administration.
These statements are by themselves welcome, but Robinson had fallen into the terrible trap like most of his predecessors of constantly looking over his shoulder, worrying what the rump of his ideology are thinking about his leadership. Take the flags protests for example, can you imagine in any modern democracy around the world where elected representatives of the governing party would stand on the street with protesters who are openly breaking the law by blocking a road? While Robinson never took part in any of these protests as leader, he has not disciplined any of his members who did.
Genuinely inclusive unionism
Fast forward to the present moment, the invitation to Pope Francis to visit Northern Ireland was a perfect opportunity for Robinson to reach out and show just how confident he is in his position and his ideology. At the moment Robinson is one of the most politically secure unionist leaders since the 1950s and yet he is squandering his political capital by worrying what the extremes of his own side think about his leadership.
If Robinson wants to get away from siege mentality unionism, then he himself has to act totally comfortable when one-time foes come to town. Meeting the Pope is something that leaders of many Protestant majority countries around the world do without batting an eyelid. If the push to create a genuinely inclusive unionism is be successful then moves like this are necessary, otherwise efforts merely come across as window dressing.
There is a tale of two leaders in Northern Ireland; we need both of them to be on the right track when it comes to reconciliation but if at every election you have to try and get votes by pandering to the worst instincts of your supporters, you really need to ask if it is a mandate worth having at all?
Dr David McCann is a researcher at the University of Ulster.
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