It’s an ill wind that blows no one – or nothing – any good. Fatted calves across the North will be breathing a lot more easily, in light of Gregory Campbell’s contribution to Wednesday morning’s The Nolan Show.
The East Londonderry MLA’s chilly response to Sinn Féin’s embracement of democracy was predictable, if disappointing. “They have, as part of the Republican Movement, a violent past which can’t just be airbrushed away,” he told the radio show. His party as a whole, he continued, would “not be treating Sinn Féin exactly the same as every other democrat who hasn’t been involved in violence. How could you treat them exactly the same?”
While listeners often conclude that there is little new in Mr Campbell’s frequent utterances over the airwaves, his inclusion of the adjective ‘other’ before ‘democrat’ was significant. He did, at least, appear to signal – albeit grudgingly – an acceptance now of Sinn Féin’s constitutional credentials. Comparing the First Minister (his party leader) to the Deputy First Minister, Mr Campbell said, “One of the two is a democrat, and has been a democrat; and the other one is a democrat now but wasn’t always one.”
So, Martin McGuinness “is a democrat now”. Surely it ought to be a cause for celebration that a man, who once reputedly headed the most ruthlessly efficient paramilitary organisation in Western Europe, “is a democrat now”?
In the Christian tradition, conversion is usually a cause for joy. We are encouraged to embrace converts. In a famous parable in Luke’s Gospel, the fatted calf was slaughtered for a celebration feast when the prodigal son returned home. Indeed, the returnee’s father went further still – ordering his slaves to dress his son in the best robe, put sandals on his feet and a ring on his finger, “for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” (Luke 15:24).
The Bible tells us, too, about the experience of St Paul. As a young man called Saul, he persecuted Christians zealously, in his own words “approving and keeping the coats of” those who stoned St Stephen to death (Acts: 22:20). St Paul, who had a violent past which couldn’t just be airbrushed away, subsequently became one of the most significant apostles in the history of Christianity.
There is always a risk when we choose to place our trust in someone, particularly when they come late to our corner. Occasionally, though, our trust is rewarded. We even have a phrase – the zeal of the convert – which describes how complete and enthusiastic conversions can sometimes be.
Giving or withholding trust is a matter for the individual, and Christians will respond in accordance with their faith. They will eventually have to account for their actions to a much higher authority even than the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Standards and Privileges Committee.