I had two conversations this week which linked, sort of. Let me explain.
The first was with a unionist, a decent, civilized man, who asked me “Well – is Martin McGuinness going to shake hands with the queen, then?” I told I didn’t know but my guess was that he would at some point. What’s more, when and if he did, he and Sinn Féin would be looking for something in return. I resisted the temptation to add: “And the bigger the something-in-return, the better”.There are people out there who find it easy to mistake generosity for weakness and reasonableness for capitulation. Sometimes the pigs-might-fly brigade need reminding that a political party and a punchbag are two different things.
The second conversation was with another unionist – again, one of a civilised demeanour. We were on a radio discussion about local councils and whether power-sharing and good relations were developing as they should. The main point I tried to drive home was that the media do need to report what’s happening and not get carried away by the notion of balance. It’s fair reporting to interview someone who says 2 +2 = 4, but that doesn’t mean that, in the name of balance, you have to interview another man who says 2+2 = 5.
If you’re going to be fair in your reporting of what’s happening in local councils, you have to face unpleasant facts. In this case, the facts are that some unionist-dominated councils act in a manner which’d send you checking your calendar it wasn’t 1972 rather than 2012.
Take, if you will, the case of Antrim councillor Adrian Cochrane Watson and his reported views on a Sinn Féin mayor in this borough with a 40% Catholic population” “Pigs will fly before Antrim allows a Sinn Féin mayor. Yes, it’s totally undemocratic but I’ll never promote Sinn Féin”.
Or consider the case of Craigavon councillor Woolsey Smith, who’s reported as saying he won’t accept power-sharing on that council before Sinn Féin “prove itself a democratic party”.
Or check unionist-controlled councils like Lisburn, Newtownabbey Ballymoney or Castlereagh. Peter Robinson has much to say about breaking down barriers between Protestants and Catholics, but judged by their actions, these Unionist-dominated councils aren’t listening to him.
There are two shocking things about this. One is that councillors like Watson and Smith, who shrug off any suggestion of power-sharing with republicans in “their” council, are seen as legitimate members of the unionist family. Maybe a wee bit extreme but ach sure, these things take time. Fourteen years down the road from the Good Friday Agreement and changing the views of neanderthals needs more time? Pardon me while I restrain my cat.
The second thing – and in some ways more shocking- is that the media by and large don’t confront these dinosaurs. If power-sharing at local level is raised, rather than look at the facts, whataboutery hares are raised and there’s much talk about Martin McGuinness and the queen, Gerry Adams and the IRA, the Northern Bank and republicans. We’ve mentioned unionist failings, quick now, let’s get some republican failings to balance the issue… Except that’s not balance, that’s evading the issue.
The man who wanted to know if Martin McGuinness would shake hands with the queen went on to talk about how much things here have changed and how English people are now coming as tourists. So different, he said, from the dark past, That all this had been achieved without Martin McGuinness shaking the queen’s hand seemed to have escaped him.
Maybe it’s wrong to talk about power-sharing. Councils run leisure centres, arrange bin collections – it hardly merits the name of power. Stormont itself is less than muscle-bound too. If someone else holds the purse-strings, the power that’s left to you is pretty puny.
But the amount of power involved ultimately doesn’t matter in this case. What matters is that when Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson stand together and behave in a civilized, co-operative way, they offer a model to the general population of how to behave. At the grass-roots level, councils provide a model that in some ways is more powerful, in that it’s closer to home. There are those in the unionist population who, if they hear their councillors express suspicion or even contempt for republicans, they feel justified in adopting similar attitudes. The councillors then look over their shoulder, note that they’ve got a backward-facing electorate and act accordingly. And so the vicious cycle continues.
Meanwhile the media need to get over this notion that if they criticise one side, they must manufacture some quid pro quo to make themselves look mature and balanced. Report the facts and skip the ersatz balance bit, guys. It’s your duty.