When Simon Hamilton of the DUP took the floor at Stormont and referred to Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness as ‘the deputy’, the power disparity in the relationship between the two parties was crystallised in graphic fashion. The Derry politician was said to have ‘visibly bristled.’ Feeling baited, he duly bit and gave an answer which merely confirmed the validity of what Hamilton had said to begin with. ‘First of all, I’m not the deputy. I’m the Deputy First Minister in a department where there is equality between the First Minister and myself. And don’t you ever forget it.’ Hamilton is unlikely to given that he received an answer as shallow as it was short.
Had he been a cute hoor, like his party leader, rather than replying that he was the deputy first minister Martin McGuinness would have reiterated the Adams position and insisted that he was Joint First Minister. It might have been nothing more than a rhetorical stratagem devised less for its truth value and more for its ability to successfully counter Hamilton while at the same time subverting the DUP claim to be top dog.
The height of the Deputy First Minister’s success in this exchange was to remind the DUP and anyone else still interested in what the ‘folks on the hill’ blather on about that the second class status evoked by the term ‘deputy’ is an image McGuinness and his colleagues are quite uneasy with.
Snapping at Simon Hamilton in the manner which Martin McGuinness did carries the stamp of the bully. For those who have met Hamilton, he is hardly the most obnoxious of DUP members. Paisley who can be described as little else but obnoxious was quite fond of referring in public to ‘the deputy’ in the presence of McGuinness. Never once was he rebuked with anything angrier than an ear to ear smile which earned McGuinness his ‘chuckle brother’ tag.
Moreover, complain as he might to Hamilton, the fact remains that there has been no greater reaffirmation of British and Unionist dominance and consequently the deputy status of McGuinness than the Sinn Fein man’s decision to stand shoulder to shoulder with the leader of the British police in Ireland plus the leader of British unionism in Ireland and demonise republicans as ‘traitors.’ Surely the equality agenda would have called for Robinson and Orde to say something comparable about the police or unionists; not a word of it. Each knew their station. When first class tickets were being issued for the post-St Andrews political journey that lay ahead McGuinness didn’t get one.
Martin McGuiness has served as Catholic deputy to both Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson. It is the type of CV we might expect to find in the portfolio of a Larne Catholic circa 1972 but hardly a Derry Catholic in the new Millennium. Yet McGuinness persists. He argues that he has been bending over backwards to facilitate Peter Robinson as the parties continue to fake another crisis in a bid to have someone in London or Dublin listen to them. Larne Catholic phenomenon again. His republican critics would take a somewhat different view feeling that the one time leader of the IRA has bent over forwards to accommodate the current DUP boss and has been duly screwed.
A sad state of affairs which is not offset in the slightest by the occasional gruff snap at perceived tormentors on the floor of Stormont. Where Sinn Fein is at today is a destination far removed from the united Ireland rainbow, illusory, but visible while the armed struggle rained down. Its position does not invalidate the party’s decision to abandon armed campaigning but raises serious questions about how it manages its reformist strategy. It is demonstrably not delivering the goods; the Maze Stadium; Irish Language and devolution of policing and justice are all areas where the failure of its reformist strategy is patent. It is difficult to come up with anything persuasive to refute Peter Robinson’s triumphant claim that:
Nobody is boasting about Irish unification by 2016 anymore. On all fronts and at every level we have rolled back the nationalist agenda and are following our Unionist agenda. We have re-moulded government to our vision … We have literally dismantled the Belfast Agreement ... Every impartial observer of the political scene agrees that the DUP is the driving force in Stormont. Who can seriously deny that the DUP is setting the agenda?
Faced with such brazen in-your-face crowing Sinn Fein is left dangerously exposed as it swoons and swans around the Stormont corridors of powerlessness looking very much like British parliamentarians with no resemblance to their former revolutionary selves who might just have been expected to do something more radical than listen to reminders that their place is at the back of the bus.
So the dispute over the term ‘deputy’ is not one of semantics. The endless designation of runner up to the nationalist project is reinforced by the use of terms like ‘Deputy First Minister’ and ‘First Minister.’ Martin McGuinness might be right in stating that in terms of equality there is no real difference in the office shared by him and Peter Robinson. But outside it, in the wider world including the international arena, first means first. As in cup finals those who make it there but do not win are rarely remembered. To deputise is not to equalise. The deputy is not the sheriff.
This article featured in Fourthwrite Magazine Winter 2009: Issue 37