issue 255 - May 1994
War and peace
What would it take for the IRA to give up its terrorist campaign?
Chris Brazier tries to find out from republican leader Martin McGuinness
whose voice is banned from broadcast in the UK.
Martin McGuinness is in demand. The day before I see him the IRA has launched its third mortar attack on London’s Heathrow Airport, proving two things – that it could cause major mayhem in Britain almost any time it wanted; but also that it is serious enough about the current peace process not to want to derail it (the mortars were deliberate duds). It has also offered a formal response to the Downing Street Declaration for the first time – a careful statement which clearly tries to keep the channels open.
The media are beating a path to this particular door because Martin McGuinness is Gerry Adams’s partner at the head of Sinn Fein, the political party allied to the IRA. Not only that but long and spurious legend has it that he is secretly the IRA’s Chief of Staff. More precise information said to have emerged from British secret-service channels has it that McGuinness became commander of the IRA’s Derry brigade in 1971 at the age of 21 and was IRA Chief of Staff between 1978 and 1982.
Now he is at pains to deny that he is a member of the IRA and scrupulously avoids talking like one – and unlike many less prominent republicans he has never been successfully prosecuted by the British security forces for IRA membership. But what is clear is that he is held in great respect by the republican movement: if anyone can lead the IRA into peaceable politics it is he.
We talk in Sinn Fein’s Derry office – a terraced house in the Bogside which makes precious few gestures to comfort. Certainly no-one visiting here is going to be able to accuse them of selling out. The decor might be described as early 1970s student squat; the walls are peeling and the Easter Rising and Malcolm X posters on them could easily date from that period. It seems incongruous that a man working from this defiantly alternative and downbeat home base could be in direct negotiation with the British Government and have the power to unlock one of the world’s greatest unresolved problems. Yet McGuinness himself wouldn’t find it at all incongruous – he was just 22 when he and Gerry Adams made their first secret trip to London to negotiate with Conservative Minister William Whitelaw.
What animates McGuinness most now is precisely the fact that he and Gerry Adams are not being talked to by the British Government. And when he runs through the history of his most recent talks with them you can see his point.
‘There has been political contact between us and the British Government on and off for the past 20 years. But last year the British Government came to us with a proposition. They proposed, not us, that meetings could take place and they hoped that during those meetings they would be able to convince the republican representatives that there would be no need for an armed struggle.
‘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.’
It doesn’t seem mere coincidence that this change of heart came about at a time when the Government suddenly found it needed Ulster Unionist support to get the Maastricht treaty on European union through Parliament. What seems stranger to McGuinness is that having sheepishly admitted that it had talked to Sinn Fein throughout months of saying it was not doing so, the British Government is now refusing all overtures from republicans at the very time when it claims through the Downing Street Declaration to be trying to bring them in from the cold.
I push him on why Sinn Fein couldn’t just accept the Declaration and sit down at the negotiating table once the stipulated three months non-violent quarantine had elapsed. If the IRA is as keen on peace as it says why not lay down its guns now? The answer, he says, lies in the ‘effective veto still being offered to unionists.’ ‘As long as that is there it allows the unionists to go into the conference room and sit on their hands confident in the belief that if they give nothing away their position will still be underwritten by the British Government.’
McGuinness believes that veto should be left at the door of the conference room along with all other fixed ideas – including his own. ‘We’re not predetermining anything. We have said consistently that republicans are prepared to go into the conference room with no preconditions whatsoever. We have said that everything should be left outside the door and all of us walk in there dressed only in our clothes to work out a new future for this island.’
McGuinness’s conversation is peppered with words like ‘flexible’, ‘realistic’, ‘open-minded’ – not words that have traditionally been associated with him. Doubtless this is partly because he has learned the lesson any politician learns about presentation. But there seems to be substance too. He says, for example, that Sinn Fein would no longer insist on a united Ireland.
‘Of course we are a republican party and we’d like to see a unitary state. But we’re also democrats. We’re quite prepared to go into a conference of all the Irish people, including the unionists, to sit down and work out a new future for this whole island – looking at all the possible scenarios and structures to see if there is a way to bring stable government to this part of Ireland. At that table we would say naturally we believe there should be a unitary state with a parliament at Dublin or Athlone. But at the same time the prospects of us getting that accepted by all the other representatives of the Irish people I think are minimal and we are realistic enough to understand that. And we’re also quite prepared to go in there and have the representatives of the Irish people decide on a different structure. That means there actually is room for manoeuvre to bring about a situation where the fears and worries of the unionist people can be accommodated.’
The fly in the ointment here of course is that the democratic wishes being acknowledged are those of the Irish people as a whole, a concept which sets unionists screaming – they feel their democratic majority within Northern Ireland should be the one that matters.
What I find even more striking than McGuinness’s constant talk about peace – the word is easy enough to repeat, after all – is the way he dwells on unionists’ feelings and fears about the future and how these can be accommodated. 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. ‘The British Government needs to tell us all but especially the unionist community what its long-term intentions in Ireland are; because you go out anywhere in the Six Counties today and talk to unionists and you’ll find they are already convinced that what they are seeing is the British Government slowly but surely disengaging from Ireland. We have to find some way 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.’
The ‘moderate’ tone even extends to the role of British troops but he says only a lunatic would suggest that they should be pulled out right away. Sinn Fein has called for a five-year deadline to be set for the withdrawal of troops as a spur to get people thinking seriously about future political arrangements. ‘But we’re realistic enough to know that if the British Government came to us and said “five years is a bit tight, it’s going to take a wee bit longer” then it could be seven or eight years, or even ten. I for one would not be prepared to prolong strife on this island over a matter of a couple of years. We are prepared to bend over backwards to get a political resolution of this conflict, to play our role in the peace process but the British Government are going to have to let us in there’.