When I first heard Ian Paisley Jnr and Jim Alister were criticising the SDLP’s Colum Eastwood for carrying the coffin of the late Derry Republican Seamus Coyle, I thought that the Folks on the Hill programme had returned for a new series. After all Citizen Eastwood is hardly Robespierre scaling Derry’s Walls.
Messrs Paisley and Alister rarely pass up on media opportunities but Alliance’s Stewart Dickson, obviously long suffering from political anonymity, co-joined them in Eastwood/SDLP bashing- albeit with less accuracy when he called Eastwood to be removed from a committee he was no longer on!
Mr Paisley has of late been sharing his expertise on democracy with the beleaguered inhabitants of the failed State of Guinea-Bissau. In fairness, living in Northern Ireland we have considerable experience of failed states. Believe it or not, a Leader of the Ulster Unionist party is likely to have a more secure tenure than a President of Guinea- Bissau.
The poor citizens of Guinea-Bissau have just endured another military coup which no doubt allowed the globe trotting, peace-maker, MP and Ballymena’s answer to Kofi Annan, the opportunity to catch up on some local news and there it was – evidence of the SDLP in two step with republican paramilitaries.
It has to be said it was quite surprising to see Eastwood carrying a coffin flanked by men in paramilitary dress. However, the fact that he was at the funeral or carrying the coffin was no a surprise. The late Mr Coyle and Eastwood were friends but they held very different political outlooks. I am sure like many of us who hold different political perspectives they had heated exchanges, which did not compromise their friendship.
Northern Ireland football fans are oft heard to chant ‘We are not Brazil, we are Northern Ireland’. That is certainly true in terms of football, sandwiched as we are in the Fifa rankings between those footballing giants of Antigua and Malawi. (If there is a consolation, poor old Guinea-Bissau is ranked 15 points below Northern Ireland.) Yet there is another reason we are not Brazil. Brazil has 192million people; Northern Ireland has 1.6m. With the exception of Belfast, in population terms our cities are really just big towns.
The point being is that we live in a very small place. We live as they say ‘cheek by jowl’. Our friends are close and our enemies closer. It’s impossible not to know someone with an opposing viewpoint. In all likelihood those people will be within our circle of family or friends.
In my own extended family circle, there has been the full gambit of militant republican to loyalists. Some of those served time as prisoners for activities I would never agree with, subscribe to or condone.
In fact I was not passive in my opposition and frequently found myself criticizing both them and their organisations privately and in public.
When I once explained to a relation who was a former senior IRA figure from West Belfast that I was wholeheartedly SDLP but wanted to maintain a family relationship with him- he wryly replied ‘Sure that’s fine –every family has a black-sheep’.
We stayed good friends and like Eastwood, when he died last year, along with my father I carried his draped coffin to Milltown and stood through two very long graveside orations. My attendance at that funeral, like that of Eastwood in Derry last week, was not about endorsing a political position. It was not about condoning past activities. It was a simple act of solidarity with my bereaved relatives and an act of respect for the deceased, our personal history and friendship. It unfortunate that relatives of victims have got caught up in the media furore over Eastwood’s attendance at last week’s funeral. The SDLP MLA was not disrespecting their memory and nor is he forgetful about the causes that lead to their deaths. In fact in proportion to his youth, Eastwood has spent most of his adult life standing up for victims and their families.
Over the course of our lives we will attend the funerals of many people with whom we have had very serious disagreements. It’s a sign of a maturing post conflict society that can understand and accept that.
More worrying and deserving of an answer is the number of mainstream politicians, now in government, who once had no problem showing political solidarity with paramilitaries when they were still alive and active. It’s so typically Irish to have a row over the dead rather than the living!