The glimmer of light seen in Martin McGuinness’s departure can become a beacon of hope

So the  political establishment and the media are in rare unison praising Martin McGuinness. Illness and the shadow of death – ordinary decent, natural sickness and intimations of mortality  –   bring out the sentimentalist in all types of the Irish people.

Let’s not be too starry eyed.  In a longish apologia for the different phases of his career, Martin McGuinness had no apology to make for the armed struggle.  It was left to Gregory  Campbell from across the Foyle – who else? – to remind us of  unreconciled narratives.

“It is important a balanced view is shown – there was the first part of his journey, which was a bloody and horrendous journey and there was the latter, where he devoted his time and energy to politics…”The regret is he didn’t engage much earlier in the peaceful path…. If I saw him tonight, I would ask if he would re-consider his comments that he has no regrets.” .


For the moment at least, Gregory’s reservations have easily been superseded by the message  from Ian Paisley  no less, which shares the headlines with Donald Trump’s inauguration.

“I am going to acknowledge the fact that perhaps if we got back to some of that foundation work of building a proper relationship and recognising what partnership actually means then we can get out of the mess we are currently in.

It would be very easy to beat the drum … dead easy to say ‘great stuff, another one is off the scene, we’ll deal with the next one…. Does that really help? It doesn’t help out there. It won’t put our country back together again…“We actually have responsibilities as political leaders to put this back together again and the sooner more of us are honest about this the better.”

No answering  move from the DUP  presents itself. Arlene Foster will not quit unless she is proved to be venal or uniquely incompetent.  But the DUP needs to respond with more than the reaction of the moment  which allows them not to look mean spirited on the day.  They still have to address the strong and abiding  sentiment that extends well  beyond Sinn Fein  of carping defensiveness which still to nationalists means “croppies lie down”.  For a start it’s a totally counterproductive stance these days.

Change doesn’t mean a wholesale acceptance of Sinn Fein’s agenda but it does require a shift in positions and attitudes, as they must surely realise. Both sides could use  the Irish language debate as a testing ground in an subject where the Sinn Fein proposals – as far as I understand them –  have failed to make the desired impact after decades of official commitment in the Republic. (I’ve changed the end of this sentence to make it more specific).


Revelations continue about the details and suspicions of RHI. A little Fermanagh network was it,  a Foster connection  of spads and their families stretching even  to Colebrooke to keep the scheme  going – perfectly properly of course? Or not as the case may be?  A stunning failure by glum officials to point out even to each other that two and two still make four?

The key to it now lies in McGuinness’s parting shot.

“We must continue to move forward. Dialogue is the only option.”

Well Alex Kane, if dialogue is the only option, “ letting  the Assembly go “ is obviously not  that option.  Dialogue means not sticking on terms which both sides know backwards the other will reject.

Secondly  can the positive note be sustained  throughout the election campaign?  Or at least be heard again immediately afterwards? Only if the parties produce agendas which they really can discuss.

Thirdly  the two governments can make crucial contributions straight away. The secretary of state should  take responsibility for setting up the inquiry. There is no First Minister in office so Arlene is not an obstacle.

Having dismissed joint authority as an option, the two governments should bring forward  ideas for a co-ordinated approach to dealing with Brexit consequentials  as soon as possible, starting with the meeting between Theresa May and Enda Kenny next week. This contains enough of an all-Ireland dimension for anybody to be going on with. It could prevent the election debate from becoming entirely sterile.

Civil  society – business and industry, academe and cultural bodies  – should start piping up about  what is entailed  in  parity of esteem and a respect agenda. We will never get anywhere if they are seen purely in terms of political trade off. The political parties alone  have defined this topic for far too long  and civil society should stop being so scared of them. At the very least, the present stand-off requires a modification of the tone of self congratulation that too often accompanies  discussion of “the peace process.”

Could it be that Martin McGuinness has made his most important contribution in nearly  twenty years just by quitting?

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  • ted hagan

    Through all the sentiment and kind words perhaps it’s important to consider that McGuinness’s departure through illness might be regarded by some within SF as more than convenient and an opportune time for the party to show a harder face to the unionist right after years of perceived kow-towing. There are treacherous waters ahead.

  • Sharpie

    Your last question – yes. The significance of that departure is becoming clear day by day. The response of the public to what he has done over the past month is totally unprecedented. His words and dignity in the midst of this are full of gravitas – I think to an extent that has taken DUP and the media by complete surprise, if not many others too. He has allowed space for Ian Paisley to do what he did and I think the reaction to that is very interesting. I’m seeing disbelief, distrust, appreciation, agreement, dissent – all to a couple of sentences of outreach.

    To me that is what reconciliation sounds and feels like. Now the step has been taken I am far more hopeful that someone else will follow it up and join him because it was both brave and unexpected.

    If others in the party choose to not go “full defensive” in the aftermath of the election then a genuine breakthrough will have happened. I think the whole thing is a ripple from Brexit and Trump where the space for big shifts is totally open and the brave will definitely conquer.

  • Nordie Northsider

    “Both sides could use the Irish language debate as a testing ground in an subject where the Sinn Fein position – as far as I understand it – is unrealistic by most objective measures.”

    I’m wondering now what is meant by ‘most objective measures’ (Man in pub? Brian’s own opinions?) If it’s a reference to SF (and SDLP) support for a Language Act, I can only say that such a measure was considered realistic enough to be included in The Saint Andrews Agreement. The provisions of such a Language Act have never been laid out, so their levels of ‘realism’ are unknown.

  • Brian Walker

    General dual language throughout the public sphere is unrealistic and hopeless in attracting cross community interest in and support for the language which I’d like to see.Dual signage everywhere is ok by me. For starters. OK?

  • ted hagan

    In the department of southwest France, where I lived for some years, the Occitan language, which is related to Catalan, was recognised by dual language street signs. At least that would be a platform to work on, albeit a small step.

  • Brian Walker

    Come on. There is such a thing as positive momentum. Far bigger deals have been done before.

  • Skibo

    How can a Language Act be unrealistic when both Wales and Scotland have one already?
    The issue here is Unionism have dug their heels in and said an Irish Language Act would be a sop to Republicanism and cannot be allowed. They have made it a political red line.

  • ted hagan

    I’m a realist and a cynic, Brian. I’ll judge ‘positive momentum’ when I see Paisley Jr’s election result. One swallow, and all that.

  • Brian Walker

    I didnt say ANY Language Act or measures were unrealisric. Clearly. I suggest you study the subject less polemically

  • ted hagan

    Having heard Edwin Poots’ mindboggling remarks on the Nolan Show regarding the St Andrews agreement, I can’t but agree with you. Poots’ attiitude will linger long after the applause that greeted Paisley’s remarks have died down.

  • Jim M

    There definitely should be an Irish Language Act. It just needs to be framed incredibly carefully so it can be respectful and inclusive while not being a financial black hole or an opportunity for disruption by those with bad intentions.

  • Nordie Northsider

    A fully bilingual public service would indeed be unrealistic (it certainly doesn’t exist here in the Republic), but I’m not sure that’s what SF are calling for. In their interventions on this question they tend to emphasise the right to use Irish in the courts and the right to deal with public bodies by, for example, translating correspondence etc. Who knows what would be in a Language Act? I imagine it would be more about recognising the citizen’s right to use the language rather than imposing it throughout the oublic sphere.

  • Skibo

    I apologise, I have re-read your post and note your reference to SF policy on what the Irish Language Act should entail as unrealistic.
    Tell me what part is unrealistic
    It was realistic enough to be put in the St Andrews Agreement.

  • 1729torus

    If the DUP show signs of yielding at this point, after 10 years of stalling and nastiness, this will confirm Alex Kane’s opinion that Unionists need the assembly more than Sinn Fein. The Republican base will sense weakness as conceding now isn’t an act of unselfish magnanimity – the time for that was in 1973 or 1998 or 2008 or last year.

    SF will repeat the trick of walking out (or making threats thereof) in future to see how many concessions they can get as they become more ambitious. NI’s politics will likely become more like a WW1 style war of attrition.

    And what of the demographics? Unionists value NI far more than they do the assembly. Suppose NI is 46% Catholic and 42% Protestant in 2025; what if SF and the SDLP start demanding that “Londonderry” should be renamed to “Derry” to make nationalists feel comfortable since NI belongs to them too, otherwise a UI is on the cards? How about dual flags? This consideration allows the possibility of a snowball effect rapidly greening NI’s public space instead of a slow slog over 20 years.

    You could in fact argue that a future border poll has already been weighing on the minds of the DUP since Peter Robinson, and this shows they are starting to get more worried.

    Constantly abusing the PoC was a trap instead of a foolproof way of stopping the insatiable republican agenda, which thrives in such an environment as the DUP fostered.

  • Brian Walker

    You can’t be a realist AND a cynic unless you keep shifting ground. Realism implies objectivity. Cynicism recognises only base motives.

  • Jim M

    Maybe I’m missing something, but wouldn’t the right to use Irish in court be ripe for abuse? I’m not suggesting that the average gaelgoir would do that, but you can easily see some bloody minded individual seeing it as an opportunity to inconvenience the authorities and waste time and money…

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Spot on – and let’s get on with getting it through. The Irish language is part of British culture and history too – those on the unionist side should not be afraid of it. And of course it’s hugely symbolic for many in the nationalist community – all in all, a positive thing that can enrich anyone, as all language learning is. But it does need to be handled sensitively because of the unfortunate legacy of its politicisation and use by anti-British hate groups in the recent past. That means there are not unreasonable sensitivities that will place some limits on its use in the public sphere.

    For me, on street signs only in places where people are comfortable with that – forcing it everywhere isn’t appropriate or good for building respect and affection for the language where people aren’t used to it. This isn’t a Wales or Scotland situation, we’ve had a culture war here in which people have lost lives. It’s totally wrong to see Irish as synonymous with the bigots of the Republican Movement, but it’s one of those areas where the legacy of ill-feeling the “armed struggle” left us all with doesn’t exactly help. The other big limitation is money – this all costs and at a time of financial struggles, we need to cut our cloth accordingly when it comes to cultural initiatives.

    I’d hope generosity could also be shown to the Ulster Scots dialect, another significant part of our shared heritage and culture. I’d hope in a future post-detente N Ireland, we would encourage, not disparage, the non-threatening expression of all of our cultural treasures and traditions. Yes, even the ones that are really single community affairs.

  • Nordie Northsider

    There have been a few cases of abuse in the Republic, Jim – and a few incidences where people claimed immunity from offences because the paperwork was in English only. It’s not common though, and mostly it reflects the status of Irish as ‘first official language’ (something unlikely in the North!)

  • file

    Hi Brian: ” … Martin McGuinness had no apology to make for the armed struggle.”

    Because Martin McGuinness has no apology to make for the armed struggle. Or are you saying that armed struggle has t be apologised for? If so, put the French Revolutionaries, the bolsheviks, the people of the USA, the ANC, the Palestinians etc etc on your list of people you are expecting an apology from.

  • Brian Walker

    Not a debate I want to enter here

  • file

    OK. So do an Opinion Piece on the concept of a Just War and we will enter it there?

  • Glenn
  • 05OCT68

    Mainland, on street signs lets educate people of the origin of their place names, the people of the Shankill for example, speak Irish every time they say where they’re from. Joint signage could encourage people to explore the origins place names they live in. Joint signage doesn’t mean the residents of a street or place are any less British or Irish.

  • ted hagan

    Whatever, we’ll see how it pans out and whether there’s more to Paisley’s remarks than meets the eye.

  • 05OCT68

    What was the outcome of the “abuse” did anybody walk away from a conviction on a technicality? If so, couldn’t the state cross its T’s & dot its I’s (how does one write that phrase?) and re arrest? Your point that a fully bilingual civil service doesn’t exist in the Republic is a good point & a reason Unionism shouldn’t fear an Irish language act in NI. The legal right to use Irish does not mean it must be used. Irish only has to have equal status with other indigenous languages.

  • 05OCT68

    The DUP are Federalists, NI was never a reflection of the rest of the UK, hence the need for the old Stormont or new Assembly. A true Unionist would fight tooth & nail for direct rule (as British as Finchley). The DUP cherry pick the Union to suit their insatiable protestant anti Irish agenda. Defending their support for Brexit as reflecting the majority of the UK electorate whilst a senior member advocating Unionists taking advantage of dual nationality to negate its disadvantages. Welch & Scots Gaelic respected ( few speak it in NI, hence not a threat) but not the Irish language. The Union flag flown on designated days & respect for LGBT rights respected in the rest of the UK but not in NI. A true unionist need have no fear any religious, political or sexual persuasion, a true unionist would feel safe that his/her union is inclusive.

  • Nevin

    “A little Fermanagh network was it, a Foster connection of spads and their families stretching even to Colebrooke to keep the scheme going – perfectly properly of course? Or not as the case may be?”

    Brian, you may have missed the story about the eight biomass boilers destroyed in a major fire in Fermanagh.

  • Zig70

    Militant reaction to the UUP run state is something I have no issue with. That the republican movement had an army of radicalized young men largely due to internment is fairly undisputed. Unionists have yet to publicly accept their part in the troubles and a lot of nationalists would believe that the current crop of Foster, Poots and Campbell would intern us all over again. Martin McGuinness says he left the IRA in 74 but that doesn’t suit the unionist mindset of a republican beast rather than a Hydra needed to thwart British intelligence. A lot of unionist comment is framed around their own revisionism that exonerates them from any culpability and virtually all excludes any mention of roadside abuse from the UDR or enforced poverty due to employment and housing practices, never mind State killings. All that said, I would assert that republicans did an immense amount of damage to their own cause leaving aside the much more important loss of life all round. They need to accept that. They have tried to control the narrative but they are stuck with a unionist media in Ireland and the U.K. Martin’s resignation has highlighted just how set the southern media are set against them. Stormont is a side show while unionists hold on to the hope that we will all either move south or assimilate. The real battle for SF is in the south and particularly with the press. Letting the assembly go is an option, the antipathy to it is huge. Joint authority can not currently be established by name but something that operates in essentially the same fashion giving the southern government a say in the running here has the framework in place already. Martin McGuiness is a big loss to anyone who wanted Stormont to remain and the risk is huge that a weaker leader won’t be able to sustain it. I’m fairly happy with the current situation, for the first time in NI’s history it feels like nationalists are acting from a position of strength and as with Trump and Brexit it is certainly intriguing times ahead for political observers.

  • Brian Walker

    No I didn’t miss it Nevin. Fascinating!

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I agree it would have an educational benefit but there are other semiotics around such a move too, not all of them positive. I think in areas where people have been subject to cultural denigration and physical attack from the other tribe, it can come across as a non-consensual intrusion. Northern Ireland, like it or not, is all about the politics of place and the perceived ownership of it. Insisting on say, going into Rathcoole (Gaelic name of course) and putting Gaelic on all the road signs is little different to going into Poleglass and putting a lion and unicorn crest on all the signs there.

    Maybe ultimately we should aspire to having (non violent) symbolism from both communities on everything. I’d actually like that as a long term goal, so people in the Bogside come to accept having a little Union Jack on their street signs say, along with the Irish and people in Monkstown come to accept a shamrock or some Irish alongside British symbols on theirs. How great would that be?

    In the short to medium term though, softly softly and we should recognise many communities aren’t there yet, on both sides.

  • Trasna

    The Irish language is part off British culture and history but is only symbolic to nationalist. In that sentence you’ve erased the importance of Irish from Ireland’s cultural and historic traditional emenience and downgraded it to mere symbolism while upgrading it to being part of British and cultural history.

    Why would you do that?

  • Brian Walker

    More work needed all round. Unionist and – importantly- civil society engagement . And stop using the term Act to suggest an unalterable package.

  • Trasna

    Why is it that British/unionists/loyalist people of NI have no difficultly with Irish symbols, language and music being used in a British context? You appear to have no difficulty with the Irish regiments in the British army and their use of Irish symbols, music and language like the harp, the shamrock and the Irish wolfhound and traditionl Irish airs like The Minstral Boy and Killaloe, or Irish language slogans like Faugh a ballagh but have huge difficulty in Irish people using these very same symbols, language and music in Ireland.

    Explain that mental gymnastics requied for this belief.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Good question. It’s basically about control and choice, I think, combined with the fact that meaning of symbols is in the eye of the beholder and context is essential to decoding cultural symbols. When used in an overtly British context, the symbol effectively has red, white and blue paint poured over it; its potentially jarring meanings are neutralised by the symbol’s framing in safe British contexts.

    Hence the green RUC uniform was untroubling, the harp on the hat accepted with a crown; the YCV emblem is dominated by a shamrock, but the very letters YCV signal to Loyalists that the group’s Britishness and opposition to a united Ireland are unquestioned. Protestants are also happy to follow a Northern Ireland team that wears green shirts, whose badge is a Celtic cross and which bears the name Irish Football Association on it. It’s Northern Ireland so it’s OK.

    Like I say, if it feels like our choice and we have some control, we can be much more open to adopting ostensibly “Irish” symbols in certain safe contexts. Remember we’re a people that has had to endure being told how Irish we are and that we lack the self-awareness to be able to decide our own identities. Having wriggled free from that attempted cultural shackling, it’s clear consent and control over symbols is going to continue to be hugely important for many people of British affiliation in N Ireland.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Did I say it was only symbolic to nationalists? I think what I said was that it was symbolic for nationalists in particular, but I said nothing about it being only of relevance to them. The thrust of my post was in fact the precise opposite of that.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    A great question.

    To me it seems there was a sort of cultural demarcation and certain things were swapped or surrendered e.g. Protestants gave up Gaelic things and Catholics gave up things like lambeg drums.

    It’s as if from that point on there was a cultural freeze and that certain symbols were deem ‘OK’ e.g. Red Hands, shamrocks-with-red-hands/crowns.

    I would say that unionists need to wise the bap a bit more on this topic as there are numerous examples of ‘unionist culture’ remaining in places where there are few unionists e.g. the mayoral chain in Dublin or place names such as Virginnia, Cavan (though I have to say, I suspect SF would get rid of them in a heart beat given the chance)

  • Trasna

    Thanks for the reply, appreciate it. Just to dig a little deeper here, would you say that unionists would have no problem with Irish symbols, language, music or even the sports if you could control their usage and context of usage?

    Speaking of symbols on an all Ireland basis, how are these symbols and their usage unsafe in Irish hands?

    As for the use of the Celtic Cross, isn’t that just hijacking Irish symbols because, prior to the Plantations, you’ve no history really. The Red Hand, Celtic Cross predates your arrival by at least 1000 years. Painting these symbols red, white and blue doesn’t change historical fact.

    Why have you Irish in inverted commas? Isn’t it true that when Protestants were in the ascendancy, they had no problems with Irish symbols or indeed referring to themselves as Irish? The delineation only began after partition.

    Isn’t it also true that’s there’s no room for the Irish people in your Ireland?

  • Trasna

    Why is the Red Hand and Celtic Cross acceptable?

    Walk around Cork or Dublin and you will see imperial symbols everywhere. These names need to be changed because before I die, Ireland will be out of the union longer than it was ever in it? That needs to change going forward.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Well, the red hand would have ‘earned its strips’ from the UVF and various WWI regiments (conversely people sometimes are offended by it as they see it rightly or wrongly as a loyalist symbol e.g. the Blue Peter drama)

    The celtic cross as a rule isn’t ‘acceptable’ per se (to Joe Sixpack), I just think that many NI fans don’t recognise it in the IFA badge (a loyalist school mate of mine was angered by the celtic cross pound, he asked me ‘what has it got to do with us?’, I tried to explain….)

    I disagree about renaming things just because they’ve gone out of political fashion.

    Once you’ve gone down that road then it’ll never stop eg St Petersburg – Petrograd – Leningrad – St Petersburg.

    I think it’s important to use street names and buildings and the like to preserve the historical tapestry of a place eg. the states of the American south east or Dublin.

    Political renaming to my mind is one of the most petty acts imaginable and the fact that the Dublin mayoral chain still has King William III’s visage on it speaks greatly for Dublin and makes a mockery of all the unionist alarmism and over reaction regarding what would happen to them in a UI.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    1. I don’t think it’s carte blanche for all things Irish – a lot of Irish symbols just don’t feel like ours and may never do – but I think there is certainly potential for the odd bit of appropriation of an Irish symbol here and there. I’d be surprised if GAA became popular though, we just don’t have the tradition of it and have enough other sports going on. I think a lot of people are open to a bit of Irish music, really if you’re into your music there are no boundaries. It’s not my cup of tea personally but I know people who enjoy it and even feel it’s part of their heritage too.
    2. Not sure what you mean by the symbols being ‘unsafe in Irish hands’, I don’t think I was saying that. Just that for them to feel like ours, for a lot of us anyway, that would happen by a conscious choice to adopt or accept the symbol; it is not automatically ours through being ‘Irish’, as many of us don’t feel Irish as such and those that do often don’t buy into the Gaelic Catholic De Valera image of what being Irish is.
    3. The Celtic Cross comes from the IFA formerly having been the FA for the whole island, pre-partition. But it has other resonances, like being a big symbol of the C of I. But yes it’s a fair point that the current population mainly traces its history in Ulster back to the Plantations. However, you’re kind of suggesting no ancestry counts unless it’s exclusively Irish. We tend to be not at all ashamed or feel of less value that we have shared ancestry with many people in the rest of the UK. And as such the history of Ulster is inextricably linked with that of the rest of these islands. We are pretty relaxed about being the descendants of migrants. So British symbols for many of us reflect not only our present allegiances but our deeper history. But we are also deeply bonded to Ulster, almost to the point of fetishisation, as I’m sure you’re aware. These things are not in opposition for most of us, they are complementary. I find the idea that our roots are less strong in Ulster than our Catholic compatriots a meaningless and misleading one. But it is certainly revealing that people make that error.
    4. No real reason for the inverted commas, could have done without them.
    5. Before partition, there was no great clash between being Irish and being a loyal British subject. After it, to be Irish was no longer necessarily to be British too, indeed the dominant form of Irishness was separatist and non-British, even anti-British. It took a while for most Ulster Protestants move away from the word, but the crunch came with the IRA’s “armed struggle”. There was a generational shift between my parents’ generation and mine – they were happy to be called Irish in a vague kind of way, but many of us of my age much less so. The IRA opened people like me up to exploring more specifically Northern Irish and British aspects of our identities and made us uncomfortable with the idea of being Irish.
    6. I don’t really have an Ireland, but the island as it is has plenty of room for Irish people. It’s a bit odd to suggest it might not. I’m not trying to tell anyone else how to be Irish or what identity to have – really everyone is free to be what they want. It’s massively important no one is second-guessed on their choice of identity, and indeed absurd for anyone to try to.

  • Hugh Davison

    “The IRA opened people like me up to exploring more specifically Northern Irish and British aspects of our identities and made us uncomfortable with the idea of being Irish.”
    And yet the people you live among on the “Mainland” most definitely regard you as “Irish”. How terrible your life must be, uncomfortable and misunderstood in your identity.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Oh I have a terrible life, it’s hell 🙂