Tuesday 21 November 2017

Don Mullan: My friend Martin McGuinness who led his troops to the peace table

Reviled and revered for his role in the ­Troubles, Martin McGuinness also had a gift for friendship. Writer Don Mullan, who once carried the ­injured former IRA chief of staff off the soccer pitch, remembers a friend
Martin McGuinness outside 10 Downing Street in 2014
Martin McGuinness outside 10 Downing Street in 2014
Queen Elizabeth shakes hands with Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness watched by First Minister Peter Robinson (centre) in Belfast in 2012
Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness at the funeral of Patrick Kelly in 1987
Martin McGuinness with friend Don Mullan

The last time Martin McGuinness communicated with me was by WhatsApp, on December 15, 2016. Two days earlier I had sent him a photograph from Olinda, near Recife in northeast Brazil.

Knowing that he was ill, I wrote: "Today I remembered you at the tomb of Dom Helder Camara - the voice of the voiceless, the great 20th century defender of the world's poor and marginalised, Olinda, Brazil." He replied: "Many thanks Don, much appreciated. Best wishes, M."

When I was growing up in Derry during the Troubles, Martin was both reviled and revered. He was known to be tough as nails, with a ruthless streak. Following the publication of my book Eyewitness Bloody Sunday, I got to know him personally. The book, based on 100 eyewitness testimonies, was launched just before the 25th anniversary of the massacre, at St Mary's Community Centre in the Creggan Estate, where I was born.

An estimated 700 people turned up for the launch and as I stood on the stage I spotted Martin McGuinness and former Sinn Féin general secretary Mitchel McLaughlin half-way down the hall and, just across the aisle, Bishop Edward Daly and his successor as Bishop of Derry, Bishop Seamus Hegarty. Those four were, in many respects, symbolic of the unity of purpose Bloody Sunday engendered within the different factions of our community.

Queen Elizabeth shakes hands with Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness watched by First Minister Peter Robinson (centre) in Belfast in 2012
Queen Elizabeth shakes hands with Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness watched by First Minister Peter Robinson (centre) in Belfast in 2012

It remains one of the most humbling memories of my life that, at the end of my address, all four, along with all in the room, stood to applaud my work. There was a real sense that, at last, we were building momentum that would force the British government to reverse the compounding wounds of their Lord Chief Justice Widgery who had, as Bishop Daly so aptly stated, "found the innocent guilty and the guilty innocent".

Later that year, as part of the 50th anniversary of the Creggan Estate, I was invited to participate in a friendly soccer game on the Bishop's Field, close to where the Bloody Sunday march began on January 30, 1972. I arrived to discover that Martin McGuinness was on the opposing team.

As a goalkeeper I was marking my right post when Martin and our right-back tussled for the ball near my goal. Both fell but the defender rose and took off with the ball. Martin was grimacing when I heard him exclaim, "It's broke!" I ran over to him and he said: "It's broke Don! My knee is broke. I felt it shatter." I called to the referee to stop the game and helped to carry him off the field with three other players.

An amateur photographer, sensing an opportunity, ran forward with his camera. Martin was renowned for not using coarse language, but I still recall him raising his head and telling photographer to "F*** off!"

That evening, before returning to Dublin, I called to his home with my seven-year-old son, Carl, to enquire how he was. Bernie, his wife, invited us into the front room where he was sitting, his right leg in a cast of plaster of Paris. He was particularly welcoming to Carl and asked him if he had enjoyed the game. I asked Carl if he knew who Martin was.

Carl looked at him, then looked at me and answered, "No, Dad." His answer delighted the former IRA chief of staff. "And nor should you, Carl," he said. "You have far more important things to be thinking about."

Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness at the funeral of Patrick Kelly in 1987
Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness at the funeral of Patrick Kelly in 1987

Martin had a real affinity with the plight of Native Americans and was delighted when I introduced him to the distinguished Choctaw artist and writer, Waylon Gary White Deer.

They immediately became firm friends and as Deputy First Minister, Martin wrote the foreword to Waylon's memoir, Touched By Thunder. Later, when Waylon sought a visa to live and work in Ireland as an artist, writer and speaker, Martin was generous with his time and reached out to the Republic's immigration authorities. It was Waylon who broke the news to me of Martin's passing. His message read: "Don, just heard our Martin has passed… God used him for a great purpose. And God will be good to him… may he rest in peace."

I had other occasions to work with Martin. He was particularly taken by the World War I Christmas Truce and Flanders Peace Field Project I was developing in Belgium with the support of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and expressed the wish to travel there with Peter Robinson.

He invited me to come to Stormont Castle to outline the project to the First Minister during which I extended an invitation to both men to officially open the Flanders Peace Field, in the lead-up to the centenary of the truce. Sadly, it did not materialise for various reasons. It was clear Martin was personally disappointed in what he perceived as a lack of generosity in reciprocating the many symbolic gestures he himself was making in the interests of the Peace Process.

In January 2016, Martin accepted an invitation from me to participate in a discussion with the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Mike Nesbitt, at a forum in Co Donegal hosted by Drew University. Martin's growing frustration was evident during my meeting at Stormont Castle, again stating that he was not seeing much reciprocity coming from Unionism by way of symbolic gestures he himself was making. He was also conscious of growing frustrations within Sinn Féin's grassroots.

During my preliminary meeting with Nesbitt at Stormont, he told me of a walk he and Martin had taken around the grounds of Stormont Buildings. As they walked close to Upper Newtownards Road, they happened upon two Japanese tourists on bicycles, clearly impressed by the big house on the hill. The tourists enquired who lived there and without dropping a beat the two lads invited them in for a cup of tea. The tourists were confused when the police lifted their barriers and waved them through. They left, happy visitors, none the wiser as to who their hosts had been.

Martin McGuinness with friend Don Mullan
Martin McGuinness with friend Don Mullan

It was on a cold snowy night in January 2016 that I last saw Martin in person, not realising that just 14 months later he would be gone. He and his colleague, Mark Mullan, set off before midnight through icy Donegal roads as he was anxious to get home to Derry.

Earlier, he and Mike Nesbitt had firmly and respectfully debated their cherished Republican and Unionist positions. Nesbitt, the first leader of the Ulster Unionist Party not to be a member of the Orange Order, told the audience that he trusted McGuinness. It was a long way from the glum faces of his predecessors, Craigavon and Brookeborough, who preached the politics of distrust and boasted their commitment to maintaining "a Protestant Parliament for a Protestant People". Half a century earlier, what we had just witnessed would have been unimaginable.

In July 2012, following a prompting from an American friend, Todd Allen, I wrote to the 1984 Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu concerning Martin: "There are extraordinary miracles happening in Ireland, especially in Northern Ireland… The power-sharing executive is working…

"The person who, to me, has made the most extraordinary journey is Martin McGuinness, former IRA commander, who has led his troops to the peace table and persuaded them to disarm and embrace the path of political persuasion.

"As Deputy First Minister of the Northern Ireland Executive, his handshake with Queen Elizabeth II last week was a momentous and historic landmark, for both…

"We need to support Martin on the road he has chosen and help strengthen his hand in continuing to move Ireland towards a shared future in which Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter feel a common bond of identity and humanity.

"Perhaps Father, you might consider Martin McGuinness as a worthy nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize… your nomination would encourage him to remain faithful to the transformative power of dialogue and respect…"

On January 10, 2013 Desmond Tutu emailed me as follows: "I am on the high seas for three months but will nominate Martin McGuinness." A week later, he wrote: "Done! Love, Father."

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dilis.

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