I think it was Eamonn McCann who said it is almost impossible to dislike Martin McGuinness once you’ve met him. I fully concur. The last time I met him was in Stormont, and when he saw me he rose from his chair, strode across the Long Gallery to warmly shake my hand.
That kind of emotionally intelligent instinct is political gold, and is one reason why McGuinness has lifted honours in the last two Slugger Awards. It’s also a critical part of his party’s wider licence to operate on the Unionist side of the fence.
You can pick that warmth up in this account from the same Mr Appleyard I just blogged previously. It’s only when he withdraws from personal contact with the deputy First Minister that his mind drifts to matters more solidly social and political:
Plunging through those streets with him was fun, and I wanted, for a while, to believe he would be a good choice for president. But later I thought: what if we give him the benefit of every doubt? Say he did leave the IRA in ’74, say he had nothing whatsoever to do with civilian casualties, kneecappings, torture, sectarian murders, racketeering, corruption, say he was as pure as the driven snow — what does that leave us with? With a man who knew all these things were going on and supported the thugs that did them by supporting the IRA. A decent man would have dropped them like a stone. You, James Martin Pacelli McGuinness, did not.
I left him at Galway. The next day there was Newcastle, Ballinasloe, Bundoran, Letterkenny. Even the names in Ireland are poetry. McGuinness writes poems and he adores Seamus Heaney, who he thinks would make a great president. “But I am not a poet!” he says quickly. He isn’t. But he should read Yeats, the greatest of Ireland’s poets, more closely than the Irish tend to do. I kept hearing of the “terrible beauty” that Yeats said was born when the leaders of the rising at Easter 1916 were executed by the British. But “terrible” is the word, and Yeats also wrote in that poem: “Too long a sacrifice/Can make a stone of the heart.” He later wrote scathingly and sadly of the withering effects of the pursuit of “some vague utopia” on a human soul.
Personally I like Martin McGuinness, a lot. And that’s despite having no illusions of the particulars of his violent past. He possesses the kind of star quality that Peter Robinson can only dream of. Yet Robinson’s political instincts (with the advantage of sovereign possession, I suppose) are the clearer, the more thought through and, over time, the more consistent.
But likeability is only one factor in the success of any political enterprise within a democracy. People have to believe you can do what you promise. Thus Mr Robinson’s low in ratings popular polls seems belied by the fact that so many people are prepared to turn out and vote for him at the appropriate time.
Both, of course, share a work ethic that’s probably helped cement the relationships in Stormont Castle. That and the fact that currently there is only one operating factor in shifting votes in Northern Ireland, the need for communal champions either side of the sectarian divide.
At the same time it is hard not to think that the in the more open theatre of southern politics the SF project will struggle to take off until such times it can run senior candidates who have no need to be so defensive of their pasts. And that they have a credible and desirable route map (despite powerful dynamics apparently working in the opposite direction) to their said goal of politically unifying various peoples of the island.
Personality, whether Martin’s or Gerry’s, is simply not enough.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty