The late TK Whitaker told a wonderful story about the time Ian Paisley threw snowballs at an Irish taoiseach. This incident occurred after a meeting between Jack Lynch and Terence O’Neill, the Northern Ireland Prime Minister, in the late 1960s.
The Taoiseach’s car was leaving Stormont when it was set upon by protestors led by Dr Paisley. Whitaker, who had accompanied Lynch to the North, recalls Paisley shouting at the car “No Pope here” as he angrily fired his snowballs.
As their car hastened away, Lynch turned to Whitaker and asked with characteristic tongue-in-cheek humour: “Which one of us does he think is the Pope?”
Politics in Northern Ireland in recent weeks has been dominated not by the throwing of snowballs, but by the hurling of insults. Martin McGuinness’s decision to resign was the final breakdown in relations between the DUP and Sinn Féin, but tensions have been smouldering almost from the moment Arlene Foster became First Minister less than a year ago.
In almost a decade since Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness confounded many sceptics by being able to build productive working relationships with Foster’s predecessors.
Last September, at the Venice film festival, The Journey, a film documenting the unlikely friendship between the former Derry IRA commander (played by Colm Meaney) and Ian Paisley (played by Timothy Spall), received its world premiere.
McGuinness’s subsequent political partnership with Peter Robinson was perceived as being cooler, but Paisley, in fact, left office without ever shaking McGuinness’s hand.
Robinson and McGuinness shook hands for the first time in a private meeting in 2010 when McGuinness commiserated with the then First Minister about the difficulties the DUP politician was experiencing on account of a personal relationship his wife, Iris, had entered into.
When Peter Robinson ultimately stepped down as First Minister at the end of 2015, he had shared his intention to do so with McGuinness long before he told many people in the DUP and well advance of it being announced publicly.
If McGuinness’s relationship with Robinson was characterised by mutual respect, the same cannot be said about his relationship with Foster.
David McKittrick, the doyen of political journalism in Belfast, who has been reporting on the conflict and peace process in Northern Ireland for over 45 years, has described the dynamic between Foster and McGuinness as “frankly terrible”.
McKittrick has observed that while Paisley and Robinson “tried to strike some sort of balance between the moderate and the unyielding”, Foster has tended to opt for “confrontation rather than reconciliation, showing few signs of outreach to McGuinness or to republicans in general”.
Foster has always given the impression that she is a reluctant power-sharer. She began her political career in the Ulster Unionist Party and, along with Jeffrey Donaldson, was an internal party critic of David Trimble’s support for the Good Friday Agreement, until her defection to the DUP.
Foster’s suspicions of Sinn Féin are deep rooted. In one of her first interviews as DUP leader, she recalled the day when she was eight that the IRA shot her father, a member of the RUC who survived the attack, and how this shaped her politics.
In the same interview, Foster also spoke of the trauma she endured as a teenager when the IRA bombed her school bus in an attempt to assassinate the driver, a part-time UDR soldier.
“I was actually sitting beside a friend’s sister and I was in the inside and she was in the aisle. She was very badly injured,” Foster said.
“You then had to deal with the fact that this had happened and it could have been me, because we used to fight about who sat next to the window.”
Last April, Foster did not attempt to disguise her anger when Sinn Féin staged a commemoration for Seamus McElwain, an IRA volunteer who had been killed by the SAS and the man that she believes tried to murder her father.
Foster told the Belfast Telegraph that McElwain “was an evil man responsible for the murder of many border Protestants”.
The First Minister said that celebrating his life “sends a mixed signal to dissidents today. Murder was always wrong. No matter if it was 2016 or 1976”.
Foster’s more recent comments that there should be a reappraisal of the mandatory coalition arrangements in Northern Ireland’s political institutions, with a view to a shift to voluntary coalition government, can only be interpreted as harking back to the old order of Unionist hegemony in Stormont. Such comments are only adding further fuel to flames of this crisis.
Foster’s contempt for the IRA, her unwillingness to compromise and her hard-line Unionism has won her few friends in Sinn Féin. But the tipping point for the Northern Executive came about as a result of the DUP’s less than generous attitude to the Irish language.
In early November, McGuinness accused the DUP of being “motivated by hate” following the decision of Peter Weir, the DUP Minister for Education, to stop translating official publications and correspondence into Irish.
The DUP’s decision later to pull the plug on an Irish language bursary scheme prompted another furious reaction. A groundswell of opinion emerged within Sinn Féin that they could no longer work with Foster.
The DUP last week belatedly moved to restore funding for the bursary scheme, but by this stage trust in the Executive had been shattered.
There is some irony in the DUP’s Communities Minister, Paul Givan, initially claiming that the withdrawal of a measly £50,000 in funding to run the bursary scheme was necessary as an efficiency saving, when the Renewable Heat Incentive was spiralling out of control at huge cost to the public purse.
The proxy battle that has been fought out in Northern Ireland Executive over the status of the Irish language goes to the heart of the age-old animosity between Republicans and Unionists.
For Sinn Féin, mainstreaming the Irish language is a way of manifesting their nationalist identity in government, but for many in the DUP it amounts to a dilution of Northern Ireland’s essential Britishness.
In Northern Ireland, sadly, the Irish language has moved a long way from Douglas Hyde’s “dreams of using the language as a unifying bond to bring all Irishmen together”.
When Peter Robinson was immersed in controversy in 2010, Sinn Féin chose not to force him from office. This was because there was a recognition that though Robinson was often dour, he was a sincere convert to the peace process and understood the realities of power-sharing. Significantly and pointedly, McGuinness’s resignation letter refers to Arlene Foster’s “deep seated arrogance”.
It is hard not to conclude that the Ash for Cash scandal and the public anger it has provoked has provided Sinn Féin with an opportunity to pull the rug from under a First Minister that they perceive to be an unreconstructed Unionist and someone they find it increasingly difficult to do business with.
Gerry Kelly was quick to insist last week that there has to be an election. He also categorically rejected Bertie Ahern’s worthy suggestion that there should be a four week cooling off period, accompanied by a preliminary inquiry into the Renewable Heating Incentive Scheme. Sinn Féin’s insistence on an election gives Foster little wriggle room and may ultimately make her position untenable.
To borrow Foster’s own description, an election will be a “brutal” affair. Mired in allegations of corruption and incompetence, the DUP in adversity are likely to resort to the banging of old tribal drums.
This election, if it comes, is shaping up to be the most divisive and sectarian election the North has seen in a long time. Political orthodoxy suggests an election is often a good thing to clear the air. However, in the context of the polarised politics of Northern Ireland, a bitter election could further enflame passions and unleash forces that will undermine decades of peace-building.
Of further concern is that even after an election, there is no inevitability that the parties will be able to come speedily together to form a new administration. A worst case scenario is that in March, as Theresa May invokes Article 50 for the UK to leave the EU, Northern Ireland may have no government.
The impact of Brexit will be damaging across the entire island of Ireland, but if Northern Ireland is convulsed in political instability, there are many ingredients in place for a perfect storm.
This should set alarm bells ringing in Dublin, and our Government’s political priorities must be to protect the peace process and to mitigate the damage that Brexit can wreak. These tasks are not mutually exclusive.
In 1967, TK Whitaker, Jack Lynch, Charles Haughey and Hugh McCann, the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, went on a tour of European capitals to generate support for Ireland’s application to join the EEC.
Fifty years on, the Taoiseach and key officials might consider a similar tour of European capitals to gain support for a soft Brexit and to ensure that Britain’s exit does not contribute to the unravelling of the peace process in the North.