When surveying the last forty years of Northern Irish political and social development, there’s a series of big ticket items that we point to that serve as markers of progress. The Good Friday Agreement and subsequent referendum; the IRA announcing a cessation of violence in 2005; the St. Andrew’s Agreement getting the institutions back on track; Starbucks opening on Ann Street; Stewarts and Crazy Prices becoming Tesco. These provide points at which we traditionally look back and say ‘something changed’ or ‘we moved forward’. Executives were formed and policies were implemented, with the day to day management of government becoming the theatre of battle, our squat pens resting snug as a gun.
But in Northern Ireland, the pivotal moments are the quiet ones, whispers in the noise. Quiet, not through timidity or lack of ambition, but simplicity. Quiet, but perhaps the loudest declarations of intent in our recent history. Quiet, but with ferocious grace.
In 1987, the IRA bombed a Remembrance Sunday service at the Enniskillen cenotaph, killing 11 people including Marie Wilson, a 20-year-old nurse, who died in her father Gordon’s arms as they were buried under the rubble. Gordon Wilson, grieving and filled with anguish, then committed what I’ve oft considered a superhuman act, far beyond what many of us could muster in grief. He said:
“But I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life. She was a great wee lassie. She loved her profession. She was a pet. She’s dead. She’s in heaven and we shall meet again. I will pray for these men tonight and every night.”
This singular act of forgiveness was, and still is, shattering. Wilson felt called by his faith to lay forgiveness upon those who had just taken his daughter, and pleaded that no retaliation be carried out in her name. This was not the done thing at the height of the Troubles, and his statement resonated. Irish historian Jonathan Bardon recounted that “no words in more than twenty-five years of violence in Northern Ireland had such a powerful, emotional impact.” Wilson’s declaration begging mercy for those who took his child flies in the face of even our most rational reactions.
Twenty years later, on 8th January 2007, David Ervine suffered a two heart attacks and a stroke after attending a Glentoran match at the Oval in East Belfast. Ervine had been convicted of possession of bomb making equipment and sentenced to 11 years, released after six in 1980. He then trod a different path, that of a progressive Unionist with democratic principles, and strived to de-escalate Loyalist paramilitary activity in East Belfast and seek a peaceful solution to the Troubles.
At his funeral, his brother Brian said:
“He had the guts and the courage to climb out of the traditional trenches, meet the enemy in no-man’s land and play ball with him.”
The enemy in question was Gerry Adams, and Gerry Adams was sitting in the pews.
Brian Ervine acknowledged that Adams’ presence was testament to what his brother was striving to achieve and unthinkable a just few years previously. Then, in a deeply loyalist area of East Belfast, a quiet, gentle, yet thunderous moment: spontaneous applause from groups of loyalists. Adams, and Alex Maskey, attending was brave: safety couldn’t be totally assured, but they went to pay their respects to their colleague from no-man’s land.
Ten years later, today, Martin McGuinness, the former IRA commander and deputy First Minister for Northern Ireland, died aged 66. McGuinness’ legacy and the reaction to his death is better articulated in Nathan Stewart’s article here, but I’d like to focus on one set of tributes that floored me.
I’ve never been a Paisley fan, largely inherited from being a near neighbour on Cyprus Avenue, the best protected and strictest no ball games street in Belfast. Saying that, an interview today with Eileen Paisley, Ian’s widow, on Martin McGuinness was one of the most incredible interviews in Northern Ireland I’ve ever heard. I encourage you to listen to the whole six minutes before reading on.
Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley represent the polar opposite of the spectrum of Northern Ireland political and social life. They were the extreme. Entering power sharing together was a leap of faith for both men, let alone their movements. Eileen Paisley’s interview strips the momentousness of this away to focus on the personal journey of two men, diametrically opposed.
Paisley’s faith-based answers, like Wilson’s, may rankle some, especially since politics is so often synonymous with religion in the province. But if we accept that this is a language that Paisley is comfortable communicating in, that it is a language of love for her, we find a ferocious grace for an enemy turned friend.
The statement, first uttered by her son Ian Jr in an earlier interview, that it is how you finish in life that is important rather than how you started, is preceded by the analogy of the apostle Paul, someone else who started life in violence and ended preaching peace. In Paisley’s eyes, the journey from violence to peace is one well-trod, and her belief in forgiveness through Christ is paramount to how she views a former adversary. This articulation is vital in communicating to large swathes of the professing Protestant community that they have a duty to view McGuinness with mercy. Regardless whether you see McGuinness either needing or deserving mercy, for a lot of people, this is important. This is a Paisley, and she is mourning an adversary turned friend because personal connection matters. From the 1970s through to the mid-2000s, no one would have expected this. No one would have expected, given all of the history and the tragedy of Northern Ireland, that the Paisleys and McGuinnesses would grieve one another.
Language and intention is important. Finding a way to bridge divide through the quiet, the small, the normal, can be much more powerful than the theatrical gestures of politics. I’d contend that Northern Ireland’s political progress can be best measured in the manner by which our political leaders conduct their politics and treat each other as people. It shouldn’t take death or illness for politicians to acknowledge publicly that friendships and respect across communities have often been one of the strongest forces for change in the country.
Photo Credit: BBC NI