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What did Michelle O’Neill and Emma Little-Pengelly talk about on the way to John Bruton’s funeral?

Travelling together to John Bruton’s funeral was an easy feat for O’Neill and Little-Pengelly compared with the tightrope they must walk for the next couple of years

Nothing encapsulated the momentousness of what is afoot on this island as vividly as a road trip two women shared last weekend. It was the day of the former Taoiseach John Bruton’s State funeral where the presence of Stormont’s most senior unionist politician engraved a welcome footnote in Irish history.

That Emma Little-Pengelly, Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister, chose to pay respect to a Southern politician who disavowed the Easter Rising and was pilloried by his political rivals as “John Unionist” was less remarkable, though, than how she travelled to the funeral in Co Meath. For she made the round trip of roughly four hours in the company of Michelle O’Neill, the first nationalist First Minister, whose father fought opposite Little-Pengelly’s father in the Troubles.

Their journey is reminiscent of the seminal Scottish road trip made by the late Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness that culminated in the St Andrews Agreement. On that journey, both men declared they despised what the other had done in the past, then shook hands on the deal and went on to work so amicably together at Stormont they became known as the Chuckle Brothers.

For those of us wondering if history can repeat itself – or even excel itself – the auguries are promising. Last Saturday, another two staunchly opposed politicians took to the road together. One has previously sat in Westminster. The other hopes to sit in a post-unification Dáil Éireann. What did they talk about on that long journey with the gigantic elephant of history wedged between them?


Potential topics were to be found in an absorbing television documentary on RTÉ One on Monday night called Andrew Trimble: For Ulster and Ireland in which the former rugby international pored over the tapestry of identities in the North that defies the traditional binary labels of British or Irish, Protestant or Catholic, nationalist or unionist, loyalist or republican. The theme pursued by the Ulster-Scots Protestant, who holds an Irish passport and regards himself as a nine-county Ulsterman rather than a six-county Northerner, is that where history divides, culture can fill in the cracks.

O’Neill and Little-Pengelly were separated at birth by history. The First Minister was born in Cork while her IRA father, Brendan Doris, had temporarily relocated the family to Fermoy in the 1970s. He had already been in jail on IRA charges before her birth. Two of her cousins were also in the IRA and were shot by British security forces, one fatally. The other was accused of attempted murder.

The Deputy First Minister’s father, ex-UDR soldier Noel Little, was one of the Paris Three who were arrested in the French capital in 1989. A French court heard they had attempted to obtain arms from South Africa for the loyalist paramilitary group, Ulster Resistance. Little denied he was involved in arms procurement, but was held on remand until October 1991, when he was given a suspended sentence and fined in a French court for his part in an intelligence plot.

Yet the two women have much in common. Both grew up on streets that trembled with fear. Little-Pengelly has recalled witnessing, at the age of 11, the “absolute devastation” caused by a bomb explosion outside her home in Markethill, Co Armagh. O’Neill has talked about the gauntlet of abuse and provocation from British soldiers she had to run to get to her Co Tyrone school.

While neither woman was active in the Troubles, both are of them. Each had a childhood marked by financial insecurity during prolonged absences of their fathers. Their female identities form another tie to bind them. O’Neill has described the sexism she experienced when she was pregnant with her first child at the age of 16. Little-Pengelly represents a party that has not always been an inviting place for women. Both are mothers who care about the future awaiting their children and grandchildren.

These are some of the strands of their identities that can help fill the crater that history has left between them.

“Michelle is an Irish republican and I am a very proud unionist,” Little-Pengelly said the day Stormont reconvened after its two-year limbo. “We will never agree on those issues but what we can agree on is that cancer doesn’t discriminate and our hospitals need [to be] fixed.”

Normal politics about Northern Ireland’s crippled health service, about the cost of living and the provision of decent wages, jobs and homes for people will help them avoid the elephant wedged between them, but there will be occasions when that might not be possible. Responding in 2017 to calls for her resignation after she addressed a 30th anniversary parade in memory of eight IRA members killed by the SAS in Loughgall, O’Neill said: “I see no contradiction whatsoever in commemorating our republican dead while reaching out to our unionist neighbours to build the future.”

With local, European and Dáil elections looming in the Republic, party-political rhetoric by and against Sinn Féin is likely to raise tensions. O’Neill’s party leader heads the opposition in the Dáil and Little-Pengelly’s sits in the House of Commons, giving them platforms to talk, potentially inflammatorily, over the heads of their Stormont incumbents.

Compounding it is the latest animus in the Anglo-Irish relationship over the Dublin government’s initiation of legal proceedings in the European Court of Human Rights challenging Westminster’s Northern Ireland Troubles Legacy Act. When the provision to terminate all court cases and inquests arising from the conflict comes into effect in May, the relationship could become more strained.

Remaining tactful for a few hours in a car will prove an easy feat compared with the tightrope O’Neill and Little-Pengelly must walk for the next couple of years but, if they can do it, new possibilities will materialise. O’Neill captured the essence of their challenge in her Stormont reopening speech when she said: “None of us are being asked or expected to surrender who we are. Our allegiances are equally legitimate.”

If two politicians who were born into sworn enmity can work together for the common good, who knows what might happen?

Whether you call it a united Ireland, as Sinn Féin does, or a shared Ireland, as Andrew Trimble sees it, or a new Ireland as actor James Nesbitt has envisaged, this island’s future brightened last Saturday when those women sat in a car and travelled together over the border.