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18 February 2010 Edition

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The Mitchel McLaughlin Column

Lessons from South Africa

There seems to be a cohort within the media, especially the print media in the North, who are determined to raise the political temperature, whether it is taking quotes out of context to make an eye-catching headline or playing on misplaced fears in sections of society.  
For instance in covering an interview with Gerry Adams last week, the Irish News ran a headline proclaiming: Adams says ‘Never’ to Garvaghy Road march.
In actual fact, Gerry said no such thing. What he actually said in the interview was that there should be no march down the Garvaghy Road without the permission of the residents. But never mind the factual content of the interview, which covered a range of issues spread over two pages, the headline served its purpose – the usual reactionaries within unionism clasped the misleading headline to attack Gerry Adams, to accuse him of bad faith and no doubt will repeat it so that the headline will become the accepted ‘fact’ rather than what was actually said.   
The other example which seems to be gaining momentum among commentators and columnists is the speculation that Martin McGuinness could become First Minister following the next Assembly election. The dangerous aspect of this speculation is not that Martin could become First Minister but the suggestion that it would be unacceptable to unionists.
These opinion makers don’t seem to recognise the contradiction in attempting to justify their contention that unionist parties would refuse to serve in an Executive with Martin McGuinness as First Minister and the portrayal of rejectionist unionists as democrats. What these commentators ignore is that Martin McGuinness is presently ‘Joint’ First Minister. Peter Robinson can only exercise the power of the Office in partnership with Martin and if it transpires that a Sinn Féin nominee is entitled to the designation of First Minister in the next assembly he or she would have to work under the same partnership with a unionist nominee. That is the outworking of the Good Friday Agreement.  
So what are these commentators really saying? Leader writers continuously demand that everyone adhere to the highest standards of democratic principles. Is that everyone except themselves? Does their adherence to democracy only apply so long as the status quo is safe? Do they expect republicans and nationalists to accept political second-class status in perpetuity?
Or do they accept that the principle of consent is a two-way street that should be promoted in a manner that is not portrayed as threatening? That in circumstances where the majority opinion is for Irish re-unification then that must be accepted on the same basis as republicans/nationalists currently work within present constitutional arrangements.
In the event of Sinn Féin becoming the largest party in the Assembly that also requires that they accept Martin McGuinness or whoever Sinn Féin nominate as First Minister as the democratic will of the electorate.
Last week we celebrated the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release from jail. The change that Nelson Mandela managed in South Africa to move from an apartheid system into a nation supported by all cultures within that country was a remarkable feat and one which, with political will and mutual respect, we can replicate here.  

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