Ulster’s oddest ever political dalliance?

Despite the fact that Ian Paisley’s deputy, Peter Robinson, had warned this would be “a work-in rather than a love-in” – last Tuesday his boss and Sinn Fein’s number two seemed relaxed in each other’s company, laughing and smiling. Indeed, the image was more one of detached affection than that of two old foes forcibly burying the hatchet. In this month’s Fortnight magazine, Malachi O’Doherty casts his weather eye over the new relationship upon which Northern Ireland’s shared future depends: By Malachi O’Doherty

It is hard to imagine Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness working well together. They are men of very different types. This has to do with more than the religious background of the two, though there will be those who will argue that it is that background which determines their separate ways of thinking about the world. Perhaps – a little.

But the big difference is in the manner with which these men face the world. McGuinness approaches the world coyly, Ian Paisley brashly. McGuinness has lived a secretive life, Paisley a public one.

McGuinness, for decades, has been making decisions on strategies and policies in small committees, in rooms that have been swept for bugs. Those decisions have concerned whether individuals would be killed, or at least whether certain categories of people would be killed. Town centre bombings, massive bombs in London or Manchester, that police woman at the courthouse in Derry, an outed informer (outed perhaps by another informer). Should this man be allowed to live in Derry? Are the weapons stores safe?

All his past experience will have equipped McGuinness to be quiet about the decisions he has taken, to seek no credit for them outside the coterie within which he has made them. He has played life like poker, and it shows.

Even so, he is a cheerful and playful man at times. But his relaxation, fishing, is the respite of a man who needs to think secret thoughts and who can not relax as other men do, garrulously, drunkenly.

Where we have seen the private McGuinness he has come across as emotionally naked. He relished his first public outing with Paisley like a child enjoying Christmas. It appears that he loves Ian Paisley now and loves being patronised a little by him. Paisley calls him ‘deoputy’ and though that is the official title, Paisley knows that a deputy is deputed, and respects his marshall. McGuinness will presumably have realised by now that he has to rein in that giddiness.

Ian Paisley has put his trust in Martin McGuinness’s ability to keep quiet about his work. From the end of March they had several meetings to plan for the formation of the executive and Paisley knew he could trust McGuinness not to be tempted by impulse or an annoying journalist to say more than he ought.

Paisley is the opposite of McGuinness. He has often said more than he ought. He is a man who is extravagant in his language and transparent in its emotions. Probably his sidekicks make his political calculations for him.

Paisley is, no doubt, capable of the ordinary discretion required of public life but he is not especially gifted in this. He has to be loud. He has to know that he is known. He wants you to know where that blast of rage is coming from. It is coming from him. Paisley could not to blow up a building then stroll whistling past the wreckage as if he has not even noticed the change in it.

He has been accused down the years of being the secret hand behind Loyalist killings. He just isn’t the type.

He could not approve the shooting of a man and then walk into a meeting with the Secretary of State to discuss how they both will face the problems arising from this latest murder. McGuinness can do that. McGuinness has gall.

Both men may have shifted the course of history with their anger, but McGuinness’s anger has always been private and Paisley’s has always been public.

The better match for Paisley would be Adams, another flawed show man. The better match for McGuinness would be Robinson, another man who can think deep thoughts and not feel the need to express them.

So what must the private working relationship of Paisley and McGuinness be like? Clearly it is better than those of Trimble and Mallon or Trimble and Durcan. David Trimble and Seamus Mallon could not get on. Trimble has an unpredictable edginess. He might be warm and pleasant in one meeting and surly at another. He has a temper but it subsides. Mallon smoked.

Paisley is better humoured than either. He is funny. He can laugh. He will not want to be photographed laughing with Martin McGuinness for a while, but he is a jolly clown. It will happen.

But how will McGuinness cope with Paisley’s religiosity? Paisley always tries to convert those he deals with. He sees it as his duty to remind you that salvation is on offer. It is inconceivable that he would not offer that to Martin McGuinness.

And McGuinness, of a more conspiratorial cast of mind, may always have assumed that Paisley was just another religious charlatan. He will find that he is not. Paisley is the real thing.

And Paisley, having assumed for years that Martin McGuinness was an evil killer, ought naturally to be curious about the journey he has made, the integrity of as motives, the quality of his conscience.

Actually, Paisley has little curiosity anbout other people and their subjective lives. One thing only matters: are they saved or not? Martin McGuinness is not saved. That makes him, ultimately, no better or worse than all the other people Paisley works with every day who are going to Hell too.

They’ll get on fine.

First published in the May edition of Fortnight Magazine.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty