Fionnuala O Connor: McGuinness's health moves centre stage as RHI crisis deepens
Difficult days for the power-sharing executive and big pressure is focused directly on Arlene Foster, naturally enough.
The DUP has messed up on RHI and the opposition, scenting blood, have taken full advantage.
But there is also acute pressure on Martin McGuinness at a time when he should be taking it easy after missing the China trip on medical advice.
The most remarkable of former paramilitaries turned politician, he is now near the eye of the RHI storm, which would strain anyone’s health.
It raises the issue of right to privacy versus the right to know whether someone remains capable of the job voters chose them for. No contest, even when that begs the question of what the deputy first minister post amounts to; something still unclear at the time of writing.
Curiosity about the McGuinness constitution testifies to his importance, indication that respect for him exists in surprising quarters, though it may not feel respectful to his family and friends. A Derry lock-down on details is par for the course in that village-city. (Assail the privacy of a well-known native, most reporters learn, and you might as well be in Crossmaglen, or Short Strand.)
But the health or otherwise of public figures long ago became accepted matter for discussion, inevitable in an age of indiscriminate, often self-publicising celebrity, the death of deference - and paparazzi with long-range lenses.
Some still have qualms about swopping, reading, even listening to medical details about people of whom they only know a public face. Private citizens can weather health problems and family trauma in decent obscurity. In the modern age there is no such luxury for public figures. Today’s media will not always draw a veil, sometimes rightly so, while social media is largely beyond control. The invasion of some areas denies common humanity; a doctor’s surgery, A&E admission, hospital wards; photographs apparently secretly taken of the very old, very ill Ian Paisley; all disgusting propositions. It is also true that Paisley with failing health and powers was furious to the end, and told us so via those Mallie interviews, that at age 82 party and church had presumed to replace him.
State of health mattered less when governing was less interventionist and arduous; perhaps especially here in this territory beyond the ken of London and love of Dublin, economy and budget effectively dictated from a distance. Though this is not to deny the desirability of a competent, accountable Belfast mini-administration: particularly now, mid-scandal about an energy scheme with the outward appearance of a cash giveaway.
But as every student of olde-worlde unionist-run Northern Ireland knows – and some young people must be taught this properly, yes? – in the early 50s, 1954 in fact, Stormont prime minister Basil Brooke went on a five month tour of the southern hemisphere, taking in New Zealand and Australia. He did send the unionist party conference a tape-recording of fraternal remarks. As the tale likes to note, it really wasn’t scandalous of him to leave his desk for so long. He didn’t have a desk, as his embattled successor Terence O’Neill bitterly recalled.
The US election of someone who campaigned as a racist and misogynist boasting about sexual harassment, revived accounts of past White House concealment of unfitness in office. Woodrow Wilson damaged beyond recovery by strokes still wanted another presidential term. Calvin Coolidge who after a strong first year lost interest in the job when his 16 year old son died of septicaemia, as the US slid into major depression, like the president. But Lincoln, also shattered by a son’s death and with chronic depression was far from disabled by it. Churchill with his lifelong ‘black dog’ was a resolute war leader.
On this small stage, figures from all parties have been admirably open about depression and cancer, once-unmentionables. Peter Robinson and McGuinness, again to give public example, together revealed hearing loss. Robinson could have minimised his heart problem but to his credit went beyond what was necessary in admitting an unhealthy lifestyle and disastrous diet.
Many politicians enjoy, even crave the limelight, but there is a downside and the death of one young Sinn Féin activist and serious illness of another illustrate that it is not just time’s winged chariot that takes a toll. Alongside the ‘right to know’, a degree of true sympathy is called for.
Good luck to McGuinness.