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Monday 20 November 2017

Backstreets of the Bogside to the high seat of power

Greg Harkin

Within minutes of news breaking yesterday of Sinn Fein's decision, Martin McGuinness received support from people who just a few years ago would have denounced his role in the republican movement.

One of them was a Presbyterian minister. The other lost his wife to a Provo bomb.

It is a measure of how attitudes have really changed north of the Border. We will soon see the verdict at the ballot box south of it.

The 'shock and awe' of Mr McGuinness as Deputy First Minister in the North has long since subsided, chiefly because of his close working relationship with first Ian Paisley -- they were dubbed the 'chuckle brothers' -- and more lately in the company of Peter Robinson. Once bitter enemies now work together.

The man who once sat on the IRA's Army Council has moved so far politically, he is now himself on a hit list for dissident terrorist groups.

It is all a far cry from the backstreets of the Bogside in the late 1960s and early 1970s where he rose from a teenage agitator against the old unionist state to a feared paramilitary leader who ran a bloody and terrifying bombing campaign.

When the British government held secret talks with the IRA in 1972, it was the 22-year-old Mr McGuinness the then Secretary of State Willie Whitelaw spoke to.

Throughout the PIRA campaign from 1969 to the first ceasefire in 1994, despite many, many attempts to put him behind bars in the North, it was actually the southern state which did so, on two separate occasions.


In 1973, at the Special Criminal Court in Dublin, he was sentenced to six months after being found in a car with explosives and 5,000 rounds of ammunition.

He told that court: "We have fought against the killing of our people... I am a member of Oglaigh na hEireann and very, very proud of it."

He would go on to become the IRA's chief of staff, organising the group in its campaign both in the North and in Britain, all the while involved in secret discussions with the British.

But getting an insight into Mr McGuinness has often proved difficult.

Peter Taylor, the respected BBC journalist, spent 30 years shadowing Mr McGuinness. He first met him after Bloody Sunday in Derry in January 1972 when British paratroopers shot dead 14 innocent civilians.

"He was the leading IRA figure in the city at the time. I chatted to him and vividly recall his saying that he would rather be mowing the lawn or cleaning the car at the weekend than doing what he was doing. I almost believed him," said Mr Taylor.

In 1993, ITV's 'The Cook Report' secretly taped an interview from a British agent working inside the IRA, Freddie Scappaticci.

Asked if he was close to Mr McGuinness, Mr Scappaticci replied: "No, no, no. He's the type of person you don't get side-by-side with. He's a very cold person.

"He doesn't have friends in the IRA. He has what he calls comrades. He doesn't have friends as such. He frowns on womanising, he frowns on drink -- a very moralistic person.

"He is ruthless. I can say this unequivocally. He has the final say on an informer, whether that person lives or dies ... he would be praying in chapel one minute, go outside and think about ordering a shooting."

Fast-forward two decades and the father of four has a death sentence hanging over him from the Real IRA. He has taken the Provos from ceasefire to decommissioning and disbandment.

He has entered government with once bitter enemies in the DUP.

And last night he was supported in his presidential bid by Derry Presbyterian minister Rev David Latimer who said: "I have watched Martin McGuinness change, so impressively change, that it would persuade me that he has a life beyond what he is currently engaged in."

Alan McBride, who lost his wife and her father in the Shankill bomb, admitted some of his relatives wouldn't be happy, but he would have no problem, saying: "What's good for the north should be good for the south."

Fast-forward five more years. Britain's Prince Charles arrives in Dublin.

It's 2016 and 100 years since the Rising. Would President James Martin Pacelli McGuinness welcome the head of the Parachute Regiment to Irish soil?

If that happened, it would be another head-shaking moment in Irish history.


Irish Independent

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