N. Ireland Politics

McGuinness 'owes Neanderthals an apology'

Martin McGuinness added a new word to his list of insults for active Republican terrorists this week - Neanderthal.

"People in this city are horrified that there are still these Neanderthals within our society," he said in response to the Real IRA's 200lb bomb in Londonderry.

Image caption Martin McGuinness's new insult is "Neanderthals"

First he called them traitors. Then, more recently, he called them "conflict junkies" - a term he repeated this week. But Neanderthal was a new epithet. And an unfortunate one.

For in the same week we discover that Neanderthals were not the brutish cavemen we have long imagined. In fact, they were sophisticated and cared deeply about each other.

Researchers from York University found that groups living in Europe took care of their sick or wounded for years.

Tests on the skeleton of a Neanderthal child with a serious congenital brain abnormality reveal it lived until five or six years old.

In another case, the researchers found an individual that had a withered arm, deformed feet and was blind in one eye must have been cared for over a period lasting 20 years.

As Dr Penny Spikins, who led the research, observed: "Compassion is perhaps the most fundamental human emotion".

This means Neanderthals were much more human than we thought. It also means that the Deputy First Minister owes Neanderthals an apology. Just because they're extinct, doesn't mean it's fair to compare them to the people who bombed Derry this week. What would Sinn Fein's Section 75 equality police have to say about it?

We also learn this week that 14% of nationalists have sympathy with the objectives of groups like the Real IRA. Again, this piece of research challenges the conventional wisdom that these people enjoy no support. It is credible work and can't be dismissed.

But it is a bit of a jump to read the research as suggesting that 14% of nationalists "support" them, as some coverage has implied.

The question asked in the survey was: "Do you have sympathy for the reasons why some republic groups (such as the Real IRA and Continuity IRA) continue to use violence?"

Image caption Neanderthals were much more human than we thought

This means respondents are expressing sympathy for the "reasons" and not the groups themselves - a subtle, but important distinction. In other words, it's much easier to say "yes" to the question as framed than if it had said: "Do you sympathise with the Real IRA?" or "Do you support the Real IRA?"

What the research does tell us is that concepts of the renegade groups as something "other" are too simplistic. These people come from communities living in Northern Ireland and they enjoy a degree of sympathy that extends well into "normal" society.

In that sense, the use of Neanderthal may be more appropriate. For again, the most recent scientific research suggests that modern humans and Neanderthals interbred.

Where scientists previously thought the Neanderthal species simply died out, new evidence points to a genetic link between Neanderthal and Modern Man. The Neanderthal genes eventually succumbed to the more adaptable Modern Man.

In the evolving process of politics in this small part of the world, the renegade republican groups may be a species heading for extinction - it is just a question of how they get there and how long it takes.

On Sunday's Politics Show we investigate how the economic woes in the Republic will impact north of the border and we meet up with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg on his first official visit to Northern Ireland.

And if you haven't seen our new Stormont Today programme - the night-owls choice on Mondays and Tuesdays after Newsnight - check it out next week or take a look now on the iPlayer.

Jim

PS - A heart-stopping moment for Ulster Unionist Deputy Leader Danny Kennedy this week in the chamber at Stormont. As he got up to leave the Speaker continued with business: "I want to inform the Assembly of the resignation of Tom Elliott…" Mr Kennedy froze "….from the Agriculture committee".

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