Tuesday 22 August 2017

Joe Brolly: The Martin McGuinness I knew

Last Thursday’s funeral of Martin McGuinness. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Last Thursday’s funeral of Martin McGuinness. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Joe Brolly

At Barney McFadden's funeral some years ago, Martin McGuinness, who gave the graveside oration, told a great story. The graveyard that day was a sea of bomber jackets, for Barney was a man of the people: A communitarian, and a GAA man, and the sacristan in Saint Eugene's Cathedral, and an unofficial job recruitment agency for the young people in this impoverished area.

He lived in the Gasworks House, where anyone could seek sanctuary. As Martin described it, one night early on in the Troubles , when things were going ding dong in the city, he ran to Barney's knowing he could get in out of the way. It was late, and when he reached the house, it was in darkness. Barney and Roisin were in bed. He threw a stone at the top window. After a moment Barney appeared at the window, in his pyjamas, and shouted down " Who is it?" "It's Martin McGuinness." "What do you want young McGuinness?" "I need help Mr McFadden." Barney looked down at him indignantly and said: "Indeed and I will not help you, didn't I get you a trial for the Derry minors and you didn't turn up."

McGuinnes with Joe Brolly’s father, Francie, at an All-Ireland SFC qualifier between Derry and Cavan
McGuinnes with Joe Brolly’s father, Francie, at an All-Ireland SFC qualifier between Derry and Cavan

Watching the black and white news footage last week of the young revolutionary, visiting London as a 22-year-old to tell the guardians of the British empire that his only offer was a United Ireland or war, for a second I felt a sense of pride, a sense of glory. But in truth there is no glory in the taking of human life. I thought of Gerry Doherty. Gerry was the Guildhall bomber, at a time when trying to bomb the Guildhall was a recreational pursuit in Derry City. Gerry succeeded spectacularly, more or less razing it to the ground. He was caught, and served a long sentence. The world turned, and with the peace process up and running, Gerry was elected as a Sinn Fein member of Derry City Council. The Council chamber was in the reconstructed Guildhall. Gerry began his maiden speech with the words, "The last time I stood on this stage, I quite literally brought the house down." It is a good example of the black humour that was prevalent during the Troubles, of our natural temptation to gloss over the unspeakable reality.

There are countless men and women who made the same transition as Gerry and Martin. Most of them decent, basically good people. Bernadette Devlin says when describing the Troubles that if someone punches you in the face often enough, you will punch them back. Martin punched hard, very hard. He brought more than the house down and although I do not believe in God, I have always believed that those who take human life somehow have to answer for it. In Clint Eastwood's masterpiece Unforgiven, confronted with the enormity of murder, his young sidekick cannot bring himself to pull the trigger on his helpless foe. Eastwood's character says "It's a hell of a thing killing a man. To take away everything he's got, and everything he's ever gonna have." It takes a certain type of man to take human life in that impersonal way. And whatever the circumstances, it cannot be divorced from the man.

But as a peacemaker, he covered himself in glory. Martin had terrific emotional intelligence and a genuine interest in people. So, he disarmed Ian Paisley senior with more or less immediate effect, turning the most dangerous bigot in Northern Irish history into a cuddly toy. Ulster says No became Ulster says Yes with a big smiley face. The glowing tributes this week from Ian Junior, who hasn't a sectarian bone in his body and has distinguished himself over the last several years as a Unionist moderniser, and Ian's other son Kyle, are nothing more than the truth. Martin was the cement of the peace process. Unlike Adams, who is a confusing grandstander and opportunist, Martin was constant, selfless and trustworthy.

Once - I cannot remember the match or the date - I was sitting with Martin in Celtic Park, shooting the breeze. By then, Peter Robinson was First Minister and Martin his deputy. Martin's phone buzzed as a text came in. He grinned and said, "Take a look at this Joe." It was from Peter, texting Martin to say "Go on the Blues. You'll never catch us now Martin." Chelsea had won an important league game, stretching their lead in the Premiership race. Later, when Peter experienced a very traumatic time in his personal life, Martin became a close personal ally and confidant. The Unionist firebrand who once led an invasion of Clontibret (though why anyone would want to invade Clontibret is beyond me) said during the week, "While I knew his past, as he knew mine, we never doubted or gave up our shared commitment to create a new and better era in Northern Ireland politics. We had the best of personal relationships - keeping in touch even after my retirement and during his illness. I do not believe that any other Republican could have performed the role he did during this transition. In the difficult days we presently face, his influence will be greatly missed."

When Shane Finnegan and I launched Optforlife in 2012, within a few weeks we were sitting with Martin and Peter in their offices in Stormont. The North's organ donation system was in a very poor position then, and neither man knew anything about it. I suggested they come with me to visit the transplant unit at Belfast City Hospital. Within a few weeks, in a blaze of publicity, that is precisely what they did. Touring the wards with them, it was easy to see why everyone who met Martin fell under his spell. He particularly enjoyed one elderly lady who had decided to give a kidney to a stranger. Fascinated by her and keen to discover her motivation, in the end, his people had to drag him away to the waiting media for the press conference. "What a woman," he said to me, "what a woman."

Peter, who I like, simply couldn't match his charisma. Shy and awkward, he did his best but I always sensed a wistfulness in him as Martin charmed the birds out of the trees a few feet away. From that moment on, the corridors of power were open to us, with both men giving the campaign absolute, unqualified support. It is no coincidence that the North is now the world's number one living donor country. Typical of Martin, in spite of his constant work behind the scenes on this, and his countless late night phone calls to me, he never took an ounce of credit. His constant question was "How can I help?" His many texts, which I looked through with fondness on Friday, always end with the words "Doire abu!"

Both men even participated in our Lifecycle. Martin fired the starting pistol for the cyclists. Peter and his right hand man Sammy Douglas, a fantastic fellow, cycled the whole route. At least, I thought they had, until a few weeks ago, when I went up to East Belfast on a Saturday morning to meet a group of long retired Loyalist and Republican paramilitaries. Andy Tyrie, the UDA's supreme commander during its bloodiest phase, was particularly delighted to see me and corralled me for almost an hour. Four years ago, as a 72-year-old, he donated a kidney to his wife, saving her life and this was all he wanted to talk about. I think this destroyer of innocent lives had found some redemption in his belated act of humanity. As I was leaving, Sammy Douglas pulled me to the side and said: "You know Joe, that day of the cycle, the weather was filthy. When we got to Lisburn, Peter and I turned off the route and had a fry in a wee cafe. We got his security detail to drop us back close to the finish line." As I drove off, I was laughing at the thought of two of the country's most powerful men sneaking about like naughty children.

One of the great pleasures of going to Celtic Park (perhaps the only pleasure in recent years) was to sit and chat with Martin. He lived just behind the park in a council house and rarely missed a match. The stewards always brought him to the soft seats in the tiny VIP area. Like everyone else, they treated him with reverence. I believe these soft seats were his only luxury. When the rest of us were groaning and roaring and giving out, he always remained serene. Even when Paraic Hughes was refereeing. I never once heard him criticise a player or management. Even at Derry's lowest ebb, he basked in the atmosphere.

The photo above is one I took of Martin with my old fellow at the Derry v Cavan qualifier four years ago. It was a roasting hot evening and the game, which started out very boring, became absolutely enthralling as it unfolded. In the end, they beat us in extra time with some thrilling football. Afterwards, the Cavan ones flocked around him for photographs and the older generation had him sign their programmes. It will be odd to be at Celtic Park and not see him there.

At his funeral mass on Thursday in the Bogside, the DUP leader Arlene Foster came in looking apprehensive, only to be greeted by spontaneous applause from the locals. She actually blushed. Martin would have enjoyed that.

Sunday Indo Sport

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport