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23rd Mar 2017

Bill Clinton reminds the world what it needs: More Martin McGuinnesses and fewer Tommy Robinsons


Bill Clinton’s twinkling blue eyes were momentarily cast down on the tiled floor of St Columba’s Church, his 11-minute oration coming to a close.

Less a eulogy and more a celebration of peacemakers, from Nelson Mandela to Martin McGuinness – the IRA leader turned Sinn Féin politician who was laid to rest in Derry on Thursday afternoon.

A statesman in the truest sense, before honouring the memory of McGuinness, Clinton sought to praise both Enda Kenny and Arlene Foster.

While the former had won over hearts and minds outside this island with his White House speech last week, the latter was on unfamiliar Bogside Territory and could use a kind word.

Clinton was making people feel comfortable, as he had done throughout the peace process, both on the phone from the Oval Office and when he made his second visit to Northern Ireland in the devastating wake of the Omagh Bombing in 1998.

Nineteen years on from that dreadful August afternoon and the world – and, this week, the United Kingdom in particular – is still faced by acts of terrorism.

Celebrating the life of an IRA man-turned-peacemaker, Clinton could not avoid reflecting on the world McGuinness has departed.

His description of the role played by McGuinness in Northern Ireland managed to make the achievement of the former Deputy First Minister sound simultaneously straightforward and impossible.

“A passionate believer in a free, secure self-governing Ireland. The only thing that happened was he expanded the definition of ‘us’ and shrunk the definition of ‘them’,” said Clinton.

“The world at every period of insecurity experiences a new wave of tribalism. If you really came here to honour his life and honour the contribution of the last chapter of it, you have to finish his work.”

Northern Ireland politics is currently in flux – the government led by Foster and McGuinness brought down by a very mundane political scandal – the sort that should mark Northern Ireland out as a modern, (mal)functioning democracy.

Changing demographics and mindsets are challenging an old order that reinvented itself and the future is far from clear.

They have travelled so far thanks to the compromises and bravery of the likes of McGuinness, John Hume and the late Ian Paisley – people who looked across the table at enemies and saw partners in peace. People who swallowed personal and tribal animosities for the good of the many.

People entirely unlike Tommy Robinson.

The former English Defence League leader was quick to see an opportunity in the terrorist attack at Westminster on Wednesday, the terrorist attack that left five people dead and 40 injured.

With an emergency operation ongoing around him and little or nothing known about the perpetrator, Robinson was unhelpfully ranting about Islamic fundamentalists.

Expanding the ‘them’ and shrinking the ‘us’.

“This is the reality. The reality is these people are waging war on us,” he said.

“This has been going on for 1,400 years and while it’s going on the police leaders and the political leaders want to invite more.”

It is this reaction that terrorists like ISIS seek to provoke. Hate propagating hate, propagating fear, propagating division, propagating a cultural war.

Clinton talks about a “wave of tribalism” and we can all see it. Hate-mongers like Robinson are not interested in solutions, only blame.

“Our friend earned this vast crowd today,” said Clinton of McGuinness.

“He earned the right to ask us to honour his legacy by our living. To finish the work that is there to be done.”

Such sentiments should extend far beyond the six counties of Northern Ireland.

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