Brian Feeney: Losing McGuinness was a very bad move for Arlene

Brian Feeney

Brian Feeney

Historian and political commentator Brian Feeney has been a columnist with The Irish News for three decades. He is a former SDLP councillor in Belfast and co-author of the award-winning book Lost Lives

DUP leader Arlene Foster arrives at party headquarters in Belfast. Picture by Niall Carson, Press Association 
DUP leader Arlene Foster arrives at party headquarters in Belfast. Picture by Niall Carson, Press Association 

ARLENE Foster just doesn’t get it. To quote that most English of writers, PG Wodehouse, nationalists in general and republicans in particular ‘are fed up to the uvula’ with her airs and, well, in her case the word ‘graces’ doesn’t apply. Grace was notably lacking in her short undistinguished tenure as first minister.

Her initial response to Martin McGuinness’s resignation was at once toe-curling and bizarre. An attempt to appear, what? regal? A video with her sitting waving her arms in front of a fireplace in a poor try at appearing relaxed and exasperated at the same time. A lot of the time at press conferences and in individual interviews that has been her default position. Her pose and attitude were instant confirmation that everything McGuinness said was correct.

Her claim that his resignation was ‘unprincipled’ and an attack on unionism was charitably ignored because demonstrably McGuinness’s action was anything but. In losing McGuinness Foster has blown the best chance unionism had to reach an amicable accommodation with republicans. Given his IRA past, his steely reputation during the IRA’s armed struggle, his known hardline reputation, Martin McGuinness was in as strong a position as any republican to make conciliatory moves.

It’s the ‘Nixon and China’ syndrome or De Gaulle and Algeria. Men who came to positions of power after a hardline reputation that can’t be gainsaid by detractors. No one was more hostile to ‘Red China’ than Nixon so he could reach out to Chairman Mao. No one had a more patriotic reputation than De Gaulle so he could give Algeria independence. No one embodied the IRA campaign more obviously than McGuinness who once unashamedly proclaimed, ‘I am a member of Óglaígh na hÉireann and very very proud of it.’

With that reputation McGuinness could meet Queen Elizabeth, visit Windsor Castle and perform a series of unprecedented conciliatory actions. Arlene Foster threw his gestures and regular attempts at partnership and conciliation back in his face. There was no reciprocation. On the contrary, as McGuinness said, ‘arrogance’. As Gerry Adams said, he met with ‘deliberate provocation, arrogance and disrespect’.

As a result of her lack of political nous it will be a long time, if ever, before she’s first minister again. The only DUP figure who gave any acknowledgement of how serious this crisis is was Sir Jeffrey Donaldson who wondered if the Stormont institutions could ever be resurrected. McGuinness made clear on Monday, ‘There will be no return to the status quo.’ Mike Nesbitt and Colum Eastwood can run around in circles chanting ‘RHI inquiry, budget, Brexit’. They miss the point.

The current crisis is more fundamental. Gerry Adams’s speech at Sinn Féin’s Cúige Uladh on Saturday marked a policy change. Sinn Féin have lost confidence in the ability of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement in the north to deliver any change. They won’t be back in those institutions until they have a partner in administration in the north and a guarantee of the prospect of accommodation on the basis of equality.

That raises another question. Is Foster temperamentally suited to running a partnership administration? The indications are that she is not. Nonsensically, disingenuously, missing the point and claiming McGuinness’s action is an attack on unionism suggests a very dirty election campaign. At the end of it she will be nowhere. She will have led her troops into a dead end, not into ministerial office. Worse, she won’t have McGuinness to snub on a daily basis.

For Sinn Féin with fish to fry in the Republic and supporters in the north seething at DUP behaviour it will be ‘no more Mr Nice Guy.’

There will be a new Sinn Féin leader in the north who must take a tougher line than McGuinness. After all, it’s senseless repeating McGuinness’s approach and expecting a different outcome, isn’t it? Either Foster eats humble pie or toughs it out but her troops won’t forgive her for losing seats and office for an indeterminate period.

Perhaps the DUP place some hope on our current proconsul? In vain. He’s such a lightweight ventriloquist’s dummy you’d think his veins contain helium. For Sinn Féin he’s tainted with the Conservative Party’s collusion with the DUP in the hope of boosting their wafer thin majority.