WHEN we wrote here in January that we hoped Martin McGuinness’ health would spare him to mentor Michelle O’Neill, his successor as leader of Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland, during the talks on forming a new Assembly after the 2017 elections, little did we think at the time that he would pass away so quickly. The three-week deadline imposed by NI Secretary of State James Brokenshire to conclude the talks on forming a new administration passed at 4pm on Monday last and, as was realistically expected, there was no final agreement.
However, it is encouraging to note that the parties involved are keenly aware of all that is at stake what with British Prime Minister Theresa May setting the process of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union in train this week, which puts Northern Ireland in an invidious position, given that the majority of voters there in last year’s Brexit referendum wanted to remain. The overall UK decision, which Northern Ireland is bound by, has the potential to undermine the Good Friday Agreement, despite assurances by politicians of all hues that they will not allow this to happen, but nobody knows at this stage what may transpire, especially if a ‘hard’ border is imposed between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
The Brexit talks will be long and protracted as Britain and the EU, first of all, have to finalise the terms of their separation, which will take at least two years, and then the nature of the new relationships between Britain, us and other countries will have to be determined, which could take another few years. Certainly, the initial talks will only involve us as part of the remaining EU member-states and we will be expected to back their negotiating stance fully, once agreed, which could be quite a tough one in order to discourage other countries from leaving the Union.
How being on the other side of the fence will impinge on our special relationships with Britain and Northern Ireland remains to be seen, but it will make things very awkward for us no matter what, given that the border between north and south will become a border between the United Kingdom and the European Union. A stable Northern Ireland Assembly is crucial for all of us, north and south, so that we can make the best of the outcomes from these talks.
Martin McGuinness had been an ever-present part of all the administrations of the past ten years since the first Northern Ireland Assembly was formed and the cross-community reaction to his death last week illustrated how much he will be missed, especially at this critical juncture. His funeral was notable for the absence of paramilitary trappings – no guard of honour by people in black berets and sunglasses or no gunshots fired over the grave. The only concession to the deceased’s republicanism was that his coffin was draped with the Irish tricolour.
The attendance of former First Ministers Arlene Foster and Peter Robinson at Mr McGuinness’ requiem mass was much appreciated, as shown by the spontaneous round of applause that greeted their arrival at St Columba’s Long Tower Church in the heart of the Bogside in Derry, and will have generated significant goodwill that should help with the talks on forming a new executive. The handshake of welcome and appreciation proffered by Michelle O’Neill to Foster and Robinson in the church seemed genuine and not at all like the type of choreographed set-piece that some of these cross-community gestures often are.
Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams went further in his oration at the graveside in the City Cemetery when he emphasised the importance of respecting Unionist traditions. After his party’s strong performance in the Assembly elections and the weakening of the Democratic Unionist Party’s position, he was confirming that their ultimate goal of a United Ireland is more likely to be achieved through peaceful political means than by a return to the destructive violence of the past and he was making that clear to dissident republicans who might have other ideas.
It was an unambiguous acknowledgement that the preservation and advancement of the peace process, continuing the good work Martin McGuinness had been doing since putting his violent past behind him, is of paramount importance more than ever today. Throughout all the political grandstanding and upheaval that has taken place over the years, McGuinness was always the most resolute in his quest to keep the peace process on track when others were trying to derail it and was willing to accommodate all different viewpoints.
As former US President, Bill Clinton, declared in an impassioned plea during his eulogy at the requiem mass, the best way to honour Martin McGuinness’ memory would be to finish building the peace that he had been working on.