On Thursday, March 23rd, 2017, a little piece of history was made. Not the burial of Martin McGuinness, although that was undoubtedly an historic moment in these isles if not beyond, but in Arlene Foster’s attendance at the funeral of McGuinness.
There in the church alongside the assembled mourners, was former US President, Bill Clinton. It’s with that in mind that I’d like you to indulge me whilst I quote President Clinton.
We all do better when we work together. Our differences do matter, but our common humanity matters more.
– Bill Clinton
A simple act, going to the funeral of a co-worker; an act which for most of us might be considered relatively normal. For Arlene Foster however, this was surely not such a simple prospect.
There are those who will criticise her from each and every angle of this decision; but in their cynicism, they might be missing the other picture – the big picture of the person.
If I may quote one of Clinton’s predecessors.
Never question another man’s motive. His wisdom, yes, but not his motives.
– Dwight Eisenhower
Was this a former (and possible future) First Minister attending the funeral? Or was it the person? Can it be both? Need it be both? Can’t it just be a daughter, a mother, a sister?
I don’t want to go into her thought process too much, we know enough already – arguably too much. We shouldn’t know about the shooting of her father, an attempt to kill him; we shouldn’t know because it shouldn’t have happened. We shouldn’t know about the bomb which exploded on her school bus; we shouldn’t know because it shouldn’t have happened. But we do.
Facts are facts, Martin McGuinness, whether you paint him as a Lincoln style figure, a veritable Luther King of the Republican struggle, or as the murderer, the villain, one of a host of Bin Laden-esque characters of the UK in the late 20th century, all are valid on some level, to some people.
Martin McGuinness was in the IRA, he also helped to affirm the peace we have today; but the past is not erased – his membership of the organisation which took such a toll on Foster’s family, as it has on many, cannot simply be forgotten. Foster will not have forgotten that when she made the decision to attend the funeral. But went she did.
Forgive your enemies, but never forget their names.
– John F. Kennedy
In recent weeks and months, Foster has caused serious friction with the Nationalist community, acts from her Ministers such as the cutting of the Líofa grant by Paul Givan, and more recently the de-humanising comments about crocodiles and the never never opposition to an Acht na Gaeilge, all have done little to ingratiate her to the Nationalist population. But, in attending St Columba’s Long Tower Church for the service, Foster took not a step, but a leap, towards her estranged electorate.
In 2011, Arlene Foster’s father passed away, some 32 years after the day in Fermanagh when gunmen tried and failed to kill him. Arlene buried her father, just as the family and friends of Martin McGuinness buried him in his hometown of Derry, and whilst it might be a stretch to cast McGuinness as a father figure to modern day republicanism, the Uncle role might perhaps be more fitting. The public outpouring of grief following McGuinness’s passing was remarkable – the vigils across the island, this was a politician in an era where politicians have lost their mystery, but yet commanding a response not incomparable, locally, to the likes of Bowie or Lennon.
Arlene knows loss, of course we all do, but we are not all as close to the fight as she has been. Her appearance to pay her respects said much about her character, and potentially unsays a lot which had already been uttered. She could have stayed away, she could have sent her respects, perhaps even visited the family of Martin McGuinness away from the public stare. The applause that erupted upon her entering the Church was louder than perhaps even those there knew. Would it have been totally surprising if she received boos, criticism or abuse, as a panto villain upon entering the Church? This was a figure who has arguably put actual effort into dividing communities here – being applauded by her natural opponents. Simply because she came.
I believe, and it is of course debatable, that she didn’t attend as First Minister-elect, or as DUP leader, but as a human who saw a people mourning, and that she believed or hoped that her attendance might help those in mourning and her absence might hurt those same people. She empathised with them, after all that has passed, she recognised their suffering and their sadness and took more than one step to meet them. She went to Derry on a day that it was indisputably Derry, to the Bogside, the location of Bloody Sunday, to a funeral which was, in all but name, a Republican State Funeral, with a former leading IRA figure, who’s coffin was draped in the Tricolour, at a ceremony which was interspersed with Gaeilge, and sitting behind Gerry Adams; and she did all of this because she chose to, not because she had to.
Let us hope that whatever this is, that it carries on. Another presidential quote which seems quite apt here;
If you’re walking down the right path and you’re willing to keep walking, eventually you’ll make progress
– Barack Obama
I can confidently say that very little Arlene Foster has done since replacing Peter Robinson at the head of the DUP has been to my personal liking. I feel that as First Minister she has done an absolutely terrible job of representing me and my views; this, however, was the first time I’ve been proud of her actions. That I respect her and not just her office.
Many commentators mused beforehand about the political cost of going versus the political cost of not; let’s remove the political cost – the personal cost is what matters here, and Arlene Foster has paid a lot through the years in situations which are regrettably typical of Northern Ireland. Had she not have gone, I for one would have absolutely understood and I would have offered no criticism, but in going, she has earned respect; from me, from others no doubt, and judging from the applause at the ceremony – from those in the nationalist community, and that ain’t no small thing.