Tuesday 21 January 2020

Bertie Ahern: Martin’s common touch was an essential ingredient for peace

Brian Cowen takes a call as Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams share a laugh with then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. Photo: Collins
Brian Cowen takes a call as Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams share a laugh with then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. Photo: Collins

Bertie Ahern

Martin McGuinness was a man of impeccable manners. He was usually unfailingly polite and he was kind-hearted. This description may not fit the stereotype some would like to portray of a man who was active for a number of years at a high level in the IRA, but it accurately reflects the Martin McGuinness I knew very well for over two decades.

I have always been a firm believer in the proposition that while policy is important, it is people who make history. Personalities matter in peace-making and Martin's good nature and his good humour were essential ingredients in copper-fastening a new dispensation of co-operation in Northern Ireland. On political and policy issues, Martin and Ian Paisley were poles apart, but they gelled as people and that was crucial.

When I heard of Martin's untimely death, my mind immediately cast back to May 8, 2007. This day became known as 'Devolution Day' in Northern Ireland and was one of those moments that will always leave me with a warm glow. Martin was centre stage that day and so too was Mr Paisley. It is less than 10 years ago, but sadly now both of them are no longer with us and are gone to their eternal reward.

After years of stop-start progress following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, 'Devolution Day' in Northern Ireland was a time of triumph for all of us who had worked hard to drive the peace process forward and to give Northern Ireland a functioning power-sharing government.

There were many extraordinary aspects to that day, but perhaps the most amazing of all was the chemistry between Mr Paisley and Mr McGuinness - the new first minister and deputy first minister. They would later be described as the Chuckle Brothers, but on that particular day Tony Blair and I looked on like nervous parents at a wedding, hoping there would be no last-minute hitch. Thankfully, there wasn't and, for me, an essential key to devolution was to be found in Martin's personality and his essential decency.

From the beginning, he had shown Mr Paisley respect and spoke to him in a way that said 'we're serious about peace'. Mr Paisley deserves credit too. He had to get past Martin's IRA background and he ultimately had the courage to believe in him and to recognise something that I had long come to the same conclusion about - that Martin was genuine and he sincerely wanted to end the violence forever.

In office, the pair became firm friends and Ian Paisley Junior has told us that they even prayed together. Their friendship and political partnership, which did so much to move Northern Ireland forward from the dark ages, was down to Martin's common touch.

Mr Paisley, in particular, seemed to set great store by the fact that Martin always showed great personal courtesy towards him.

At first, watching the two of them chuckling together seemed surreal, but it gave everyone involved in the process confidence that these respective giants of unionism and republicanism wanted to make peace really work.

After Mr Paisley's retirement, Martin's relationship with Peter Robinson was not quite as warm, but it was professional and there was a mutual respect.

Mr Robinson did have real difficulties with Martin's past, but he was genuinely touched by the compassion Martin showed him when revelations about his wife hit the headlines in 2010.

When news of Martin's illness broke earlier this year, Mr Robinson had no hesitation in telling the public he was praying for Martin's recovery and that they had a constructive relationship.

Martin's ability to reach out to unionism and to build alliances was a key dynamic in the peace process. He was able to do this because he had decency, but also because he had courage. It can take as much courage to end a conflict as to begin one and Martin was never anything less than brave.

His engagement in the peace process put his own safety at risk. In the early days of the peace process, he faced accusations of sell-out from hardliners in the republican movement and until the end he was a target for the disdain and contempt of dissidents.

He was ridiculed for shaking hands with the Queen and for being a minister in Stormont, but I don't believe his essential commitment to a united Ireland ever waivered, not by one iota.

Martin was a tough negotiator and sometimes he could be emotional. I saw and experienced this at first hand, but I knew he was also a realist.

Beyond the rhetoric, I believe he came to realise a long time ago that the armed struggle was redundant and that the bomb and bullet would never heal the wounds of this island. He was prepared to make difficult compromises for peace and to reach out to others of different traditions to secure progress.

I deeply valued his input into the peace process and I came to regard him as a friend. We kept in touch after I left office. We shared a passion for Manchester United, though Martin also had an enduring love for Derry City FC. His other great hobby was fly-fishing, but his biggest interest and abiding concern was his family. They have my deepest sympathy.

There is no doubt that in the early days of the Troubles Martin was a hard man, if even 10pc of the stories are true. As a negotiator and a politician he always believed in his cause, but he was courteous and you could have some fun with him. He came to care deeply about peace and ensuring that future generations would not experience the mayhem that he lived through as a young man. He played a central role in ending violence on this island and displayed perseverance, sincerity and courage.

I believe he deserves great credit and great respect for his contribution. He was growing into the role of a senior political statesman before the onset of his illness and his loss is a deep blow to Ireland.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss