Setting right example for those on the streets

Robinson and McGuinness need to lead the way in good relations

Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness: the Chuckle Brothers cheered people up –  and in a place that needed cheering, that was important. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness: the Chuckle Brothers cheered people up – and in a place that needed cheering, that was important. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill


Three days after her death there is still much discussion about Margaret Thatcher’s divisive yet curiously productive role in modern Irish history. Without the Anglo-Irish Agreement that she signed up to in 1985, we would not be marking the 15th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement today – one was vital for the other.

Her death also reminded us how awful a place Northern Ireland was back then: 10 hunger strike deaths in prison and many more consequent deaths on the streets in 1981, and a terrible legacy of bitterness flowing from that time; in fact a relentless litany of death and destruction over the full length of her reign as prime minister from 1979 to 1990.

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt, amid the disputing views of her effect on Northern Ireland, in the Assembly chamber on Monday did the maths and told us that over her period in office 1,062 died in the Troubles.

It was a useful reminder that the Belfast Agreement of Good Friday, April 10th, 1998, did achieve peace and stability, whatever about any of its limitations, and more importantly should not be taken for granted. There are signs that that is happening.

The hard-won 1998 deal changed politicians and politics, generally for the good. It changed Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, the two politicians chiefly charged with driving forward its principles.

On that chilly Good Friday, Robinson and his then DUP leader, the Rev Ian Paisley, were outside the Stormont circle opposing the Belfast Agreement “sell-out”. No theme of Easter political resurrection, as far as they were concerned.

McGuinness was inside Castle Buildings endorsing the historic accord. But back then he was also digging in his heels over any prospect of full IRA decommissioning while being trenchant in maintaining Sinn Féin opposition to policing in Northern Ireland.

Back then too, dissident republicans, many or most of them oldguard disaffected Provisional republicans, were gearing up for the worst outrage of the Troubles: the Real IRA Omagh bombing of August that year and the killing of 29 people including a woman pregnant with twins, and the maiming and injuring of more than 200 others.

So, Northern Ireland has come a long way in the intervening decade and a half. Robinson and McGuinness are working together leading the Northern Executive at Stormont.

The IRA decommissioned and Sinn Féin supported policing while Robinson is effectively embracing the spirit of the Belfast Agreement, although he and other DUP people would say no, that instead they are signed up to the 2006 St Andrews Agreement. It’s an academic point: the template is the Belfast Agreement.

So great progress for sure; yet, it’s far from a steady upward graph – there has been a dip of late. The dissidents remain deadly and dangerous while Robinson and McGuinness seem to be in a relationship somewhat akin to an unhappy marriage.

They are holding together for the sake of the children, so to speak – the children being Northern society and the self-interest of the DUP and Sinn Féin.

It’s been written here before that Northern Ireland is at its best when people think, speak and act generously. That was evident – rather astonishingly, we must remind ourselves – when Ian Paisley and McGuinness had joint hold of the tiller. That percolated down to general society; the Chuckle Brothers cheered people up, and in a place that needed cheering, that was important.

With Paisley quitting office in favour of Robinson, the new double act could never be the same. Still, neither were they the Brothers Grim, as was feared.

They worked and still work together, presenting a united front when dissident murders posed a degree of threat to the political structures. It wasn’t as high-temperature as when Paisley and McGuinness were in command but there seemed to be some personal warmth between them.

But there’s no warmth now, informed Stormont sources will tell you. And that’s because of the confounded flags. The First Minister and Deputy First Minister are still doing proper businesslike work – most recently putting Northern Ireland’s case in Brazil and North America – and all the Northern Executive Ministers are busy too, in the past few weeks co-operating across different departments and parties to assist sheep farmers badly hit by the heavy snows.

But in the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister at Stormont Castle, while the work goes on, the cream has curdled; the relationship between Robinson and McGuinness has soured because of the decision to limit the days the union flag flies over Belfast City Hall, the same informed sources say.

The protests caused trouble on the streets, tarnished that new tourist image of the North and damaged business. It penetrated the offices of Robinson and McGuinness and it awakened in unionism, across all strands, a visceral concern about the constitutional status of Northern Ireland.

That anxiety was compounded by census figures illustrating how there are just 54,000 more people from a Protestant background than from a Catholic one in Northern Ireland.

And while the census, in line with recent polls, revealed that the likelihood of a majority in the North voting for a united Ireland any time soon was decidedly dim it didn’t assuage that sense of unionist nervousness.

It all brings to mind a comment of the SDLP’s Séamus Mallon around the time of the negotiations leading to the Belfast Agreement. His point was that it was for his generation of politicians to establish the agreement and that unresolved constitutional matters must be left to the next generation of politicians.

Flags issue
The problem is unionists think nationalists are ahead of themselves while some nationalists, reluctant to consider unionist sensitivities, believe now is the time to ratchet up the pressure – hence the flags issue and Sinn Féin’s push for a Border poll on a united Ireland.

Maybe, 15 years on, Northern Ireland is not quite steady enough to take such pressure just right now. And maybe Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, in the spirit of a remarkable 15-year-old deal, should be more concentrated on trying to re-establish cordial as opposed to grudging workmanlike relations.