Waiting for a new generation of politicians to emerge

Thu, Jan 22, 2009, 00:00

Unionists may need leadership but will have to make do. Sinn Féin’s old guard may hope to retire but must wait, writes FIONNUALA O CONNOR.

THE SIGHT of the youthful Obamas taking the heights of Washington brought to mind images closer to home, and raised the question of image, its power and its decline. It seems longer than a mere 12 years ago that the tall, young Tony Blair strode into the sedate King’s Hall in Belfast to launch his stage of the peace process. Now he’s grey, his image dulled long since, and upstaged conclusively as Middle East envoy, a role in which he has been underwhelming, by new Obama appointee George Mitchell. Who was also one of ours: grey for decades, aged 75, but still gleaming with American get-up-and-go.

It was, of course, a little pathetic that the North, or a fair few Northerners, should behave as though Blair, Mitchell and Bill Clinton were adopted sons, their characters, history and true objectives irrelevant once they came aboard in Belfast. But neither Clinton’s disgrace nor Blair’s alliance with Bush dented the memory of Blair/Clinton contributions at a crucial stage. Nor should they. Mitchell’s tangled ancestry and years of US Senate power-broking produced the seriousness and unflappability that kept negotiations going in the teeth of tantrums and despite insults. The performers Blair and Clinton lightened moods and changed dynamics. On a lesser scale, even Bertie Ahern was a mood-shifter, though he acted as lightning-rod too for unionist fears and tempers.

No local figure could act on the other players with anything like the incomers’ flair.

Disabled by their own local interests, unionist, nationalist and republican figures could work no magic on their counterparts. Trailing clouds of history is no asset in negotiations. The most bizarre facet was Blair’s ability to present himself as dispassionate, a British prime minister who convinced republicans of his sincerity more than unionists, since unionists thought he had no business lacking passion on the union.

A bit of outsider glow rubbed off on local players especially when translated abroad. So when Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness took the peace show on the road and when it was clear that the IRA was going out of business, gradually, and with lapses, Adams and McGuinness burnished images which did them proud for years inside and outside their own organisation. Those images no longer work magic, inside or out. The republican leaders must have watched the inauguration with a strong sense of their own mortality.

But it was the oldest player whose image played the largest part in the lights, mirrors and smoke techniques of shifting or bypassing attitudes. Ian Paisley stood on his head with all the panache of the lifetime showman. His people held their breath, and their tongues. It took most of a year after the powersharing deed was done for internal opposition to come sidling into the light. Not long afterwards the Paisley mystique crumbled as though it had never been. Only that great brazen bellow, fading though it was, could have drowned out doubts and fears and made open disaffection unthinkable for just long enough to shift the party. The uses and abuses of images have given way to surly dog in the mangerism and low-key muddling through.

Paisleyism has had its day. Northern Ireland is too small for healthy politics to develop if one whole section is dominated by an outsize personality.

Watching the installation of President Obama made many wistful at the sight of such enthusiasm, the evidence in the stately heart of Washington of that particularly American characteristic of innocence in small-town floats and bands and costumes. There was emphasis enough on America the powerful, service chiefs rubbing shoulders with the new president, Obama’s salute sharp and practised as platoons of scarved and ear-muffed troops marched by. Tears on old black faces at the young black family on the reviewing stand gave the day a different edge. A yearning to put cynicism aside is only human, and deep mid-winter frost makes yearning for spring all the stronger. There must have been Northerners of all stripes, not least new residents looking round them with dismay, who sighed at the contrast between Tuesday’s images from the US and the face of Northern politics. As well they might. London and Dublin have little interest, less time and no inclination at all to spend more scarce cash on Northern Ireland.

Unionists may need leadership but will have to make do. Sinn Féin’s old guard may hope to retire but must wait for a new generation to emerge. The SDLP faithful are stubborn but morale has rarely been lower. The world of “small p” politics, of pressure groups and community centres, has arguably been more damaged than energised by “empowerment” through stop-go official grants, and co-option as agents of the lacklustre new Stormont.

Spring feels far away, but newcomers can emerge fast at least occasionally in US politics if not in Ireland, North or South. The first images of President Obama have lifted American spirits already.