If you had to imagine a more divisive political figure you’d be hard pressed to do better than Martin McGuinness, IRA commander turned Deputy First Minister.
So the announcement of his death this morning has been met with the predictable responses we’ve come to expect when a high profile leader passes away, albeit fed through our Northern Irish filter.
There are the dignified and diplomatic official statements, treading so carefully that they almost say nothing at all. Then there are the hamfisted versions of these statements, trying to say nothing but actually saying everything through the vocabulary used.
Further along the chronology of tweeted obituaries you get the first few tentative hagiographies met with vehement outrage from those who can not and will not forget the darker aspects of his troubled legacy.
Further still are the appeals for calm and collected rationality to prevail, the perhaps naive attempts to take a step back and see the bigger picture. That particularly modern Northern Irish appeal for a shade of grey to blur out not just the black and white but the green and orange as well.
Then you get to the cynics, dismissing all of this as rote platitudes and unworthy of our attention when there are more pressing things to deal with.
Finally, the memes. And the even more predictable reminders that this was a human being with a wife and family and hey now could we perhaps lay off on the jokes for a bit.
And yet, none of these responses are invalid. And you don’t get to rise to the top of Northern Irish politics without whipping up some strong opinions on the way.
What stands out in the immediacy of McGuinness’ death is that however you react to it, it sums up your true feelings about Northern Ireland, the Troubles and the peace process as a whole.
Martin McGuinness embodied the complicated nature of our politics and history. To come to terms with his legacy will be to come to terms with our own individual responses to our past.
For those who cannot see beyond his time in the IRA, it throws the whole Good Friday Agreement into doubt. The release of prisoners, the inclusion of killers in our devolved government and any attempts to meaningfully “move on” are called into question if you cannot accept Martin McGuinness as our Deputy First Minister.
However, for those able to compartmentalise this aspect of his life, it is to in someway deny that he had a devastating impact on the people of Northern Ireland. Attempts to let bygones be bygones ignore the pain felt by relatives of victims.
But what is interesting about all of this is that these are not new questions. There are unlikely to be any huge revelations in the aftermath of McGuinness’ death as, unlike some, he had been relatively open about his IRA involvement during The Troubles.
Yes there are details that he chose not reveal, but knowing them would change more for the families than for Northern Ireland itself.
The essence of our power sharing system had been fully debated back during the peace process itself and is tacitly accepted every time we have gone to vote ever since.
So to come out with definitive statements of any sort on the day of the death of such an important political figure is to definitively state how you see our country’s past and how you see its future.
To see political commentators from outside Northern Ireland make sudden sweeping statements on unjustifiable terrorism or the admirable nature of the peace process is to realise that this is how they felt all along.
And to hear those closer to the issues in Northern Ireland make any sort of statement at all is to wonder why we are not more open about these very real and very present questions in our day to day lives.
Instead of tackling how we feel about peace and justice and the nature of our political system, we are understandably happy to generally just get on with it.
Perhaps this is in self preservation, but if we’re more content to use identity politics such as flags and language as proxies for our deeper held beliefs, then maybe we need to have a longer look at our own feelings about Northern Ireland.
As more time passes, there will be more deaths of important figures and more anniversaries of both atrocities and political milestones. And the deeply held feelings will be brought back into the mainstream conversation again and again.
It is a shame that, as with Ian Paisley Sr., Martin McGuinness’ death will be the catalyst for a lot of these conversations that have been needed to be had. So however you feel today, keep it in mind in the coming months and years as we continue on the whole process.
There are no easy answers to any of this, and nor should there be. But beware of overtly simplistic takes from any side, at home or abroad. We’re not done yet.
I am reminded of an old phrase that sadly sums up our situation rather well. You can have peace or you can have justice. You can’t have both.
But we need to get better at talking about why we can’t.
Photo credit: BBC/PA
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