Sunday 19 January 2020

He walked two different roads but it's the path of peace for which he will be remembered

Martin McGuinness presents Michelle O’Neill, his successor as Sinn Féin leader in the North, with some flowers on her appointment in January. Photo: PA
Martin McGuinness presents Michelle O’Neill, his successor as Sinn Féin leader in the North, with some flowers on her appointment in January. Photo: PA

Mandy Johnston

Tomorrow, the Bogside boy will make his final journey to the Creggan Cemetery through the narrow streets of the town he loved so well. These were the streets where his experience as a republican began.

Transformed by his surroundings, Martin McGuinness became a ruthlessly focused, lethally angry IRA activist. The streets of Derry set the direction of his life, because on these streets conflict loomed. Conflict those of us who live in the luxury of peace south of the Border can only imagine.

Because of the journey taken by Mr McGuinness and others who fought a path to peace, children of future generations will never have to learn of the horrors of conflict first hand as he did. They will learn of it only through history books.

To republicans, Mr McGuinness held an iconic status. His undeniable charisma and political pragmatism eventually endeared him to even the most hardened historical enemies, such as the Reverend Ian Paisley.

Lacking any affectation, his dexterity in political negotiations was never obdurate or offensive.

I first met Mr McGuinness in 2002. I, like anyone with even a passing interest in public relations and media management, could only marvel at his deftness in dealing with members of the fourth estate.

From an early stage as an IRA activist and for several decades, Mr McGuinness repeatedly and consistently sculpted the news agenda through a combination of articulate argument and his own vehement principles.

In that respect he was quite simply master and commander of Sinn Féin. The public heartbeat of the party from war to peace, he defined and delivered political messaging for Sinn Féin with the speed and accuracy of a heat-seeking missile, while simultaneously dissecting political opposition when required.

Although impressed by him from afar, I suspected a mask was covering the real man, the hard man. I expected to finally meet the hard man eventually behind the scenes. Masks often slip in sleep-deprived negotiations where sentences and semantics are painstakingly pored over for hours on end. I watched for that hard man every time I met him.

I watched across tables on the margins of significant meetings in great British estates such as Leeds Castle and St Andrew's in Scotland.

I watched for him during discussions on the Northern Bank robbery during the De Chastelain arms inspections talks, the IRA decommissioning discussions, in Government Buildings in Dublin, and at Stormont Castle, Hillsborough and Downing Street, and in every other obscure place we met Sinn Féin for meetings to advance peace or power-sharing in Northern Ireland.

But I never met that hard man. Not once in the years that I encountered Mr McGuinness.

The hard man was still in there somewhere, for they are one and the same person, but I encountered only a polite, humorous, intelligent, articulate and impressive politician; one that I came to admire greatly.

As government press secretary, I visited Downing Street on many occasions in relation to the peace process. I visited Chequers Court, the country home of the British prime minister only once.

The brief was a secret meeting between the then taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair to advance the peace process at a particularly difficult juncture. I was the only other member of the Irish delegation in case there was a necessity for press statements.

As our car pulled past the iron gates of the 16th-century manor and into its Tudor splendour, I don't exactly know what I expected to see once inside the imposing building.

It certainly wasn't Mr McGuinness sitting at a table with a cup of tea.

In a pathetic attempt to mask my surprise at the incongruity of it all, I spluttered: "Oh, I didn't expect to see you here." With far too much emphasis on the word you for good manners, the subtext in my tone was clear. Ever the gent, he spared my blushes and responded "Neither did I", with devilment in his eyes.

My father came from Derry and so I find myself drawn to its people through a mixture of nostalgia and curiosity. I have often wondered why a city of such torment and political tumult can throw up people who exude certain calmness. Men such as Seamus Heaney, John Hume and Mr McGuinness - who possess a composed centre of gravity devoid of histrionics that we might forgive of men who grew up in such an angry melee.

While many may not agree with some of his principles or the paths that he chose, it is hard to be unimpressed by the passion and relentless desire that Mr McGuinness had to make things better for his community. I genuinely believe he also wanted that for other communities also.

Mr McGuinness walked two different paths, those paths were almost diametrically divergent, and I suspect that his abiding legacy will be the sum of their parts; that he will be remembered not for where he started, but where he finished. This was no pedestrian journeyman and his name will be writ large in Ireland's history.

During the total year in 1977, 40 years ago, it is worth remembering the death toll in Northern Ireland was significant. In total, 55 civilians died, together with 14 members of the RUC, and 29 soldiers. Republican groups lost eight members and loyalists lost seven.

One man died yesterday. Political reconciliation was his final manoeuvre.

Irish Independent

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