It’s worth recalling that Arlene Foster was eight years old in 1979 when her father, John Kelly (Foster is her married name) was shot in the head in the driveway of the family home. Speaking about the experience in 2015, she recalled:
“I was eight when my father, John Kelly, was shot – I hadn’t thought of politics at that stage,” the newly-crowned DUP leader explained.
Mr Kelly, a policeman, survived the shooting in 1979.
But for a young Mrs Foster, it was a glimpse of the Troubles raging outside their otherwise idyllic childhood existence in rural Fermanagh.
“It was a very simple, happy, rural life,” she said. “Hay fields and the sort of thing you would expect with a country girl.
“After he was shot we had to move.”
It meant giving up their small farm, which her father ran as a sideline.
Mrs Foster still remembers the events with terrifying clarity.
“I was in the kitchen and my mother was sitting on the edge of the table and she just froze when the gunshots went off,” she recalled.
“I didn’t know what they were until my father came in on all fours crawling, with blood coming from his head.”
Whatever your views on Northern Ireland, you cannot be human and not relate to the trauma of an 8 year old girl watching her father crawl through the front door with a gunshot wound to the head, or the horror she must have felt hearing her mother’s screams. If she is occasionally hostile to political nationalism, that experience might be worth remembering. The past leaves scars on us all.
The matter of condemning such attacks is a difficult one for Sinn Fein. On the one hand, it was obviously and self-evidently a barbaric act. On the other hand, you can’t condemn one IRA murder without condemning them all – and Sinn Fein cannot do that without condemning some fairly senior party figures.
In addition, the tragedy of Northern Ireland is that there are people on both sides of the divide with horror stories to tell, including catholic and nationalist victims of state collusion with some of the most evil butchers in the loyalist paramilitary groups.
But wouldn’t it be useful to hear, just once, from a leading figure in Sinn Fein, that in hindsight, the violence was wrong?
In fairness, you can see from her response to Foster’s request for a condemnation that the subject does make McDonald suitably uncomfortable:
“The Sinn Féin leader declined to specifically condemn the incident on both occasions.
“Of course, in the course of the conflict very many people were hurt, and I regret all of that. If I wrote the history books, it wouldn’t look like this,” she said.”
In reality though, that’s not really good enough. If somebody had tried to kill your father, and then make peace with you, the least you might expect at some point in the future would be an apology for the act. This is not symmetrical, either. The British state, to its credit, has formally apologised for its worst single crime during the long years of Northern misery, the massacre in Derry on Bloody Sunday. That doesn’t bring anyone back to life, of course, but it’s worth remembering what it did do, in the words of Derry Republicans:
Tony Doherty, whose father Paddy died, said: “The victims of Bloody Sunday have been vindicated and the Parachute Regiment has been disgraced. Their medals of honour have to be removed.
“It can now be proclaimed to the world that the dead and the wounded of Bloody Sunday, civil rights marchers, one and all, were innocent, one and all, and gunned down on their own streets by soldiers who had been given to believe that they could kill with perfect impunity.”
Mr Doherty invited bereaved relatives to come to the microphone, heralding the emotional highpoint of a dramatic day, as families read the names of their loved ones to the gathering.
Their words boomed out across Guildhall Square as each ended their sentence with the shout: “Innocent”.
Few who watched that momentous day in 2015 could deny the cathartic impact of a full and formal apology for the murder, and attempted murder, of their loved ones.
It’s a lesson that Sinn Fein would do well to heed. There were absolute horrors on both sides, and while there is continued equivocation, it would be hard to blame the DUP leader for remembering the horror of that day in 1979, when she was just 8 years old.