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Martin McGuinness: the day he set sail for peace


Then Sinn Fein Chief Negotiator Martin McGuinness speaks to reporters at a news conference 26 February 1998. © REUTERS/Paul Hackett/File Photo

Chris Brazier recalls an encounter with the Sinn Fein leader in the days when his voice was still banned from being broadcast in the UK.

It was March 1994 when I met Martin McGuinness for the one and only time. I was researching a theme issue of New Internationalist on Northern Ireland (The Fire and the Future) and was basing myself in McGuinness’s historic stamping ground of Derry, where he came to prominence as the IRA’s local commander in 1971 at the age of just 21.

We met in Sinn Fein’s Derry office – a bog-standard terraced house in the Bogside, the décor of which I described as early 1970s student squat, with ageing posters commemorating the Easter Rising and Malcolm X. McGuinness made it clear that he had agreed to an interview not because of the credibility or reach of New Internationalist but rather thanks to the esteem in which he held the local playwright Dave Duggan, who was working with me on the magazine and had opened doors for me on both sides of the unionist/republican divide.

A flag flies at half-mast after the death of Martin McGuinness, on Freedom Corner in Derry, Northern Ireland, 21 March 2017. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

It was a strange, limbo period in Northern Irish politics. The day before the interview, the IRA had launched a mortar attack on London’s Heathrow airport for the third time in five days. This sequence of mortar attacks proved two things: first, that the IRA could still cause mayhem in mainland Britain almost any time it wanted; and second, that it was serious about the incipient peace process, given that the mortars deployed were deliberate duds.

That peace process had been formally initiated by the Downing Street Declaration of December 1993 by the British and Irish leaders but had been presaged by approaches from the British government to republicans earlier that year aimed at bringing them to the negotiating table.

McGuinness told me: ‘On the basis of these discussions we decided to ask the IRA in the early part of last year if they would be prepared to create the conditions in which such talks could take place – because we understood that the British prime minister would have trouble defending the talks on the floor of the House of Commons if armed conflict was taking place outside. The IRA agreed to suspend their activities for several weeks to facilitate this. But when the British government were told about this they ran away from their own proposals for talks.’

The reason for this was plain enough: the change of heart came because John Major’s government desperately needed Ulster Unionist votes to get the Maastricht Treaty on European Union through Parliament. But it still placed McGuinness and his fellow advocates of a peace process within the republican movement in an odd position. I was more than aware as I recorded him talking that his voice was still banned from being broadcast within the UK.

Sinn Feinn Leader Michelle O'Neill and Sinn Feinn President Gerry Adams carry the coffin of Martin McGuinness through the streets of Derry, Northern Ireland, 21 March 2017. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

Looking back on the interview, ostensibly with a former IRA chief of staff of rather forbidding reputation, there were plenty of foreshadows of the avuncular peace advocate and compromising deputy prime minister he was later to become. I was particularly struck at the time by the extent to which his conversation was peppered with words like ‘flexible’, ‘realistic’ and ‘open-minded’ – not exactly words with which he would then have been readily associated.

But what I found even more striking than McGuinness’s constant talk about ‘peace’ – the word itself was easy enough to repeat, after all – was the way he returned again and again to unionists’ feelings and how these might be accommodated. As I said at the time: ‘This is not the battling underdog lashing out at the unionist oppressor that I would have encountered in 1971 or even 1981; and maybe it is a sign that the tide in Northern Ireland has genuinely turned. The closer we get to a proper settlement, the more republicans like Martin McGuinness are starting to think about how they are going to live with and alongside unionists rather than how to fight back against them.’

If I had gone on to predict that this readiness to co-exist with and accommodate unionists would ultimately result in McGuinness forming a personal friendship and close working relationship with the Reverend Ian Paisley, I would, of course, have been laughed out of court. Yet these early signals he was sending out, four long years before the Good Friday Agreement that set Northern Ireland firmly on a new and peaceful road, were entirely consistent with that future.

The Irish flag flies at half-mast after the death of Martin McGuinness, in the Bogside area of Derry, Northern Ireland, 21 March 2017. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

‘We have to find some way,’ he said, ‘whereby those 900,000 people who believe that their loyalty lies with the British state can be accommodated. That is a major area of work that republicans have to get involved in.’

It is a major area of work to which Martin McGuinness then dedicated himself over the succeeding two decades; more remarkably still, he managed to carry the vast bulk of the republican movement with him as he did so.

It will not only be republicans who will mourn his loss as Ireland wrestles with the worrying implications of Brexit for the border between north and south.

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