Eamonn Mallie: Hope and history rhymed for Arlene Foster but she did not hear them
With her lack of grace, the First Minister missed a chance to change the tone in North's politics
At 1.30 on Monday lunchtime, well away from the cameras and the public, an enfeebled and emaciated deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness walked into First Minister Arlene Foster’s office and greeted her in a virtual whisper.
Foster rose to her feet, shocked at McGuinness’s disposition, moved towards him, took him in her arms, cleaved him to her bosom and said, “Martin, it’ll be all right. You and I are going to sort out this mess.
“I’ll step aside for a little while and I’ll go out and tell the world life is too short for all this bickering and arguing.”
This didn’t happen. I imagined this on Tuesday as I reflected on my sense of shock on seeing the gaunt figure of the Deputy First Minister on our TV screens.
What, I thought, if the events of the day had been otherwise and Foster, mindful of all our human physical frailties, had acted graciously in the circumstances?
Northern Ireland would potentially be a different place not just now but possibly for ever.
One single act of grace, of leadership, at the hands of Arlene Foster would probably have melted the possibility of what she now expects to be a “brutal election”.
When will principle of noblesse oblige hit the Hill?
Fr Brian D’Arcy who was abused as a young boy and as a trainee priest is still loyal to God at 70. I once challenged him to explain why he still clings to a God who claims to be just, but who allowed this evil to be visited upon him?
“I’ll tell you why,” he said, “some nights I am driving back to Fermanagh and I am tired and I remember some poor devil who is ill or who is in hospital and I decide to visit that person. A few days later or a short time later I hear that person has died.
“I thank God for guiding me to do that simple act of visiting a sick person.”
This is not just about God it is about leadership and good example.
When former DUP leader Peter Robinson and his wife Iris had their very public domestic upheaval, one of the earliest outings in the aftermath was their visit to Dublin Castle where Queen Elizabeth was the guest of president Mary McAleese and of the Irish Government. Mrs Robinson cut a dash in her bottle-green dress flanked by her husband, but what was more memorable for me were two other happenings.
Hundreds of people lined up to be greeted by Mrs McAleese. She did not over-fraternise with most of them, but when it was Mrs Robinson’s turn to shake hands with the president Mrs McAleese cleaved her to her bosom and hugged her.
This was an act of grace and an act of love for one who had suffered.
In addressing the Dublin Castle gathering on that same night in perfect Irish, the queen was gracious to her hosts, uninhibited in acknowledging Irish nationhood, visiting the Garden of Remembrance and Croke Park, landmarks housing loaded memories of a bitter past between the British and Irish peoples.
In her speech the queen expanded on the British-Irish enmity.
“Of course, the relationship has not always been straightforward; nor has the record over the centuries been entirely benign. It is a sad and regrettable reality that through history, our islands have experienced more than their fair share of heartache, turbulence and loss.
“These events have touched us all, many of us personally, and are a painful legacy. We can never forget those who have died or been injured, and their families. To all those who have suffered as a consequence of our troubled past I extend my sincere thoughts and deep sympathy. With the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all.” Grace and leadership in spades from the queen.
Within touching distance of the queen in Dublin Castle sat poet Seamus Heaney who once wrote:
“Be advised, my passport’s green/ No glass of ours was ever raised/ To toast the Queen.”
Now he was toasting that same queen.
This was another act of grace by one of the most celebrated poets in the world writing in the English language who was born into a nationalist family in Northern Ireland.
That same generosity resides in Heaney’s fellow poet Michael Longley of a Protestant tradition who penned these words in Ceasefire:
Put in mind of his own father and moved to tears
Achilles took him by the hand and pushed the old king
Gently away, but Priam curled up at his feet and
Wept with him until their sadness filled the building.
Taking Hector’s corpse into his own hands Achilles
Made sure it was washed and, for the old king’s sake,
Laid out in uniform, ready for Priam to carry
Wrapped like a present home to Troy at daybreak.
When they had eaten together, it pleased them both
To stare at each other’s beauty as lovers might,
Achilles built like a god, Priam good-looking still
And full of conversation, who earlier had sighed:
‘I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.’
We can all learn from history but history can be cruel to history-makers. Ian Paisley paid a high price for befriending Martin McGuinness as his deputy first minister. John Hume engaged Sinn Féin to bring about an end to the IRA’s campaign of violence and Sinn Féin stole his party’s clothes.
Peter Robinson stood aside as first minister during his tenure while senior counsel investigated an allegation that he had breached the Ministerial Code. He regained his role as first minister when no guilt was proven. The sky didn’t fall in because he withdrew from exercising his duties for several weeks.
Robinson attended the Dr McKenna Cup GAA final in Armagh and met with hostility in his own camp for doing so. He did his damnedest to deliver the Maze project but, faced with outright opposition, he had to surrender. Politics is a cruel trade.
McGuinness visited Paisley when he was ill and regularly phoned Mrs Paisley when her husband was in hospital.
Meeting the queen was a high-wire act for McGuinness. The foot soldiers looked to him during the IRA’s campaign. He was the last person history would have expected to entertain the queen. Risk-taking is part of leadership.
The question is now: has Arlene Foster forfeited a place in history in the current atmosphere in being too inflexible?
Had she in reality cleaved an ailing McGuinness to her bosom in an act of generosity, God only knows what would have flown from such a gesture.
Our society is crying out for humanity and hope.
Again as Heaney told us, “if you have the words, there’s always a chance that you’ll find the way”. He wrote in The Cure at Troy:
History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracle
And cures and healing wells.
Call miracle self-healing:
The utter, self-revealing
Double-take of feeling.
If there’s fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky
That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term.”
We could all learn from the lessons of US civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King in 1965 – et tu Arlene – who observed that sometimes it is better to walk away from confrontation. The protesters sat down on the road and: “After prayers they rose and turned the march back to Selma, avoiding another confrontation with state troopers and skirting the issue of whether to obey Judge Johnson’s court order.
Many marchers were critical of King’s unexpected decision not to push on to Montgomery, but the restraint gained support from president Lyndon Johnson, who issued a public statement: ‘‘Americans everywhere join in deploring the brutality with which a number of Negro citizens of Alabama were treated when they sought to dramatise their deep and sincere interest in attaining the precious right to vote’’. Johnson promised to introduce a voting rights bill to Congress within a few days.’
Leadership . . .
Eamonn Mallie is a Belfast-based journalist