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Sunday 28 August 2016


Now on his third political marriage, Martin McGuinness is going through a rough patch

Sinn Fein dirty tricks are once more threatening the political stability in the North

Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Since January, Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland's First Minister, has been in an arranged political marriage with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness. He's on his third, having had marriages with her predecessors.

Despite their 24-year age gap and a terrible history, the short-lived union with Ian Paisley (2007-8) was a great success. Onlookers were fascinated by the relationship between Paisley - roaring bigot and religious hatemonger - and McGuinness (inset), a ruthless leader of a terrorist murder machine.

cGuinness skilfully played the vain old man who had become top dog at last and could be flattered into anything. It was a bad day for McGuinness when his 'spouse' was cruelly hustled out the door and replaced in the marriage bed by Peter Robinson.

Husband number 2 was a tougher nut: during their eight-year union, business was done formally and without any mutual liking.

"Peter Robinson and I have never had a bad personal relationship," McGuinness told an interviewer in 2015. "I think I'm incapable of having a bad personal relationship with anybody."

But no one could call it a happy marriage. Arlene Foster may be a young bride (46 to McGuinness's 66), but she's under no illusions about who she has married. She has the determination of a woman who, despite being a mother-of-three, rose to the top in a political culture that saw a woman's place as behind the teapot, with the precision of language that comes from being a lawyer and the bluntness of a rural Fermanagh Protestant.

Shortly after she became First Minister of Northern Ireland she told a TV interviewer about the time the IRA blew up her school bus and the night when Seamus McElwaine, a notorious IRA mass murderer who lived across the border in Monaghan, shot and injured her father - a farmer and part-time member of the RUC.

When McElwaine was killed by the SAS while setting up an ambush, McGuinness described him as a "freedom fighter murdered by a British terrorist".

But she would work with McGuinness, she added, because the "past was the past", and she wanted a future for Northern Ireland that worked for everyone.

Since the Foster-McGuinness nuptials they have indeed been working together civilly and efficiently, but the seas in which their marital ship is sailing are increasingly choppy. There's Brexit, over which they campaigned on opposite sides. The couple managed to put together a sensible letter to Theresa May explaining what they want from the negotiations, but to cover himself in the Republic, McGuinness provided a "'Remain' must mean remain" article to the Irish Times. Righting itself as best it could, the ship was then hit by an explosive device planted by Mick Wallace last July.

Among his multifarious allegations about Nama-related corruption, Wallace had claimed in the Dail that £7m had been put in an Isle of Man bank account for Northern Irish politicians involved in Nama's £4.5bn sale of its Northern property portfolio.

In September, through his lawyer, Robinson announced his intention to sue Wallace over a "defamatory" tweet. A few days later, the highly articulate young loyalist activist, controversial blogger and general pot-stirrer, Jamie Bryson, appeared before the Stormont finance committee and, in a dramatic finale, named Robinson as a beneficiary of the alleged "success fee".

In November, saying his legacy was stability, Robinson announced his departure, but is back in the news since it has emerged that leaked emails show that the Sinn Fein committee chairman, Daithi McKay, had coached Bryson before he appeared as a witness.

Fearing that unkind people might conclude that Sinn Fein had been trying to destroy Robinson, McGuinness acted swiftly: McKay resigned. The party line is that he was on a solo run unknown to all, especially McGuinness and Martin O Muilleoir - then a leading light on the finance committee, now Finance Minister and one of Sinn Fein's few talented assembly members, who has refused the request of the finance committee to step down as the scandal is investigated.

Arlene Foster has stayed out of it, except to say that O Muilleoir should have stepped aside "even temporarily", while adding that it was Sinn Fein's call.

Few believe anyone ever does solo runs in the highly centralised, authoritarian Sinn Fein party, but stout denial has worked many times before - and may well do so again.

It's not likely to do much for marital trust, however.

Ruth Dudley Edwards' 'The Seven: the life and legacies of the founding fathers of the Irish Republic' was published by Oneworld on March 22

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards