The Saturday Profile: The hard man talking soft

Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein
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The Independent Culture
WHATEVER THE end result, the idea of Martin McGuinness as intermediary between the IRA and the decommissioning body - the role announced for him with considerable stagecraft in the days before Bill Clinton arrived to audit the fledgling Northern Ireland peace - has its own irony. The formidable IRA militarist turned political strategist, McGuinness is the Gerry Adams associate whose involvement in Northern Ireland's "peace process" was always meant to reassure volunteers on the ground, those willing to kill and be killed for the cause, that there would be no sellout. His is also the voice from Londonderry with the perspective of a Catholic- -majority town, a Derryman's characteristic self-assurance balancing Adams's edgy West Belfast preoccupation.

Martin McGuinness can now articulate his own journey from streetfighter to politician, and has revised his public persona to match. "When I listen to him now I can't believe how he's come on," says a veteran Northern Ireland commentator. "You should have heard him at the start. They hardly ever put him on a platform. Young Martin was a doer, not a talker." The change goes deeper than the substitution of tweed jackets and dark blazers for the resolutely worn woolly jumpers. Conditioned by advance publicity, newly- arrived journalists once remarked on the cold eyes under boyish curls. They now confess they find the relaxed middle-aged McGuinness "surprisingly" charming.

Latter-day charm overlays the original, very different reputation. Like Adams, McGuinness has routinely denied belonging to the IRA. A recent BBC film by Peter Taylor showed the young Martin behind the barricades in Free Derry, declaring his IRA membership on camera, as he also did, proudly, in a Dublin court. He served two jail sentences in the Republic for membership. All of 26 years ago, the British government secretly flew him and five others, including the 23-year-old Adams, to London for talks with the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Willie Whitelaw, about prolonging an IRA ceasefire. Adams and McGuinness were by far the youngest in the group, there by virtue of their performance and their promise.

McGuinness has attributed his original conversion to active republicanism to "raids on homes in the city, the battle of the Bogside", and his father's account of the RUC beating a civil rights march off the street in 1968 "at the behest of unionists". He spent school holidays on his granny's small farm in Buncrana, just across the border into the Republic. "Even at a very young age, I could never understand why, when you went over that line, you were supposed to be in a different country. Coming back to the North again was always like coming back under a big black cloud." Aged 15, interviewed for a job in a Protestant-owned firm: "It came to two questions. What's your name? What school did you go to? And out the door."

He had a normal, working-class childhood in a Catholic district, the second child in a family of seven, six boys and a girl: loved Gaelic football, met a local girl called Bernadette, married young. His schooling was first by nuns in St Eugene's Primary School near his Derry home, then by the local Christian Brothers: an order described by the irreverent as dedicated to beating the Irish language, "physical force republicanism" and Catholicism into their students, the children of the poor. "They weren't all bad, they weren't all good," says McGuinness now. They taught him the words of "A Nation Once Again", but: "It was the British and the unionists who made me a republican, not the Christian Brothers."

McGuinness, a teenage apprentice in a Derry butcher's (Catholic-owned), worked his last day at the bacon counter on 8 August 1971. Arrests next morning introduced internment. There were gun-battles in Belfast and throughout Derry. At 21, McGuinness was "on the run", rarely sleeping in the same bed twice, a full-time street fighter, and soon the personification of IRA leadership: implacable, relentless and ruthless, in for the long haul until the British were driven out. He became a dominant figure in his own small town very fast. Tabloids liked to call him "the Butcher's Boy". The Derry Provos in the early Seventies bombed the tiny city's commercial centre methodically, with markedly fewer civilian casualties than Belfast, fuelling republican legend that the Derry IRA was less sectarian, more clinical. They also shot and killed off-duty police, a part-time soldier found driving through the Bogside after drinking across the nearby border, and many others, including a series of local Catholics, kidnapped and sometimes held for weeks, judged guilty by the IRA of giving information to the police or army.

The Derry IRA used a local man, Patsy Gillespie, as its first "human bomb". Armed men took him from his home, held his family hostage, strapped him into a van with a bomb in the back and ordered him to drive to a checkpoint outside Derry. The bomb killed five soldiers: Patsy Gillespie's body was unrecoverable. That was in 1990, the year Secretary of State Peter Brooke authorised the beginning of secret contact with the IRA which preceded the present peace process. Martin McGuinness was the representative on the republican side, his hardline reputation intact despite the shift of emphasis inside the republican leadership which had begun to make ceasefire thinkable before any British declaration of "intent to withdraw".

The secret contact was paralleled by a public exchange. Brook suggested that government would have to be "imaginative" if the IRA stopped violence. In response, McGuinness hinted at an unofficial ceasefire in return for talks. An IRA source said later that the Derryman prompted questioning but not unease: "Volunteers asked me what was going on here? He has the respect and confidence of the volunteers, he's seen as their man. Gerry [Adams] is articulate, that's his strength. But McGuinness would have to be on the road selling any ceasefire idea. Without Martin, it could not be sold."

While Adams expounds on the new way forward in ever more sophisticated language, McGuinness still sounds as though he has never left the big village that is Derry. The steely militarist likes to talk about fishing. The Catholic family man says he would only leave republicanism if it damaged his marriage. For years he attended a Sunday Mass said in Irish, rather than listen to the then Bishop of Derry, Eddie Daly, who told republicans their conduct of an IRA funeral effectively excommunicated them. McGuinness was once described with exasperation by a local security source: "This isn't how we'd describe him for propaganda purposes. But he's totally clean. Doesn't smoke, doesn't drink, doesn't cheat on the wife. We've watched him like a hawk for years."

Like the rest of Sinn Fein's front bench, McGuinness deploys talent and personality as "the movement" requires. During the talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement, a number of those in other parties commented on how personable the SF's "chief negotiator" was, especially in comparison to Adams. Where Adams hung back, McGuinness pitched into both formal discussions and informal conversation. Less concerned about his impact on others, said one. "An earthy sense of humour", another said, "which I didn't expect. He always struck me as a bit scary on TV."

During the Assembly's first and only session to date, largely ceremonial with speeches to match, McGuinness offered the only lightness, joking that he was glad to see Sammy Wilson, of the Reverend Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists, with his clothes on. The DUP man had been embarrassed a few years ago by a local newspaper's exposure of nude holiday photos. Some thought the SF man lowered the tone, more remarked how times had changed a stone face. Now that warmth is permissible, even useful, McGuinness can be warm and chatty. When it suited to be taciturn, few did that better.

Martin McGuinness, at 48, is still capable of clipping off a question with a chilly finality. There is also a clear sense of someone who has grown into middle age with the Troubles, a theme that Gerry Adams also works as explanation of republicans' motivation to find a peaceable way forward. Many in their close-knit group are a similar age. They have worked out their "line" on the peace together, as once the line on war was argued, and held. But McGuinness talks about the distance between then and now more easily and effectively than most leading republicans. Recalling that 1972 secret meeting in London to journalists, he tends to repeat the phrase, half-mockingly: "Gerry and myself, we were only children really." Then he remarks that he now has daughters as old as he was then, whose lives are very different, and for whom he wants more. When Adams condemned the Omagh bomb, McGuinness seemed momentarily startled before calling it "indefensible". They went to Omagh together, to the leisure centre where relatives waited for news. One man shouted that Adams knew the bombers and must turn them in. Adams was jostled: McGuinness steered him away, telling the man tersely: "They're no friends of ours."

Not that long ago, McGuinness said there would be no decommissioning of IRA weaponry, ever. In 1986 it was also McGuinness who described the 1974 IRA ceasefire as disastrous, the leadership who sponsored it "disgraceful". He started the same Ard-Fheis (annual conference) speech with "a commitment on behalf of the leadership that we have absolutely no intention of going to Westminster, or Stormont." He is now an MP though he does not attend Parliament. This month, he is due to be named Sinn Fein's senior minister in the new Stormont Assembly.

But few in the front line on Northern Ireland, nationalist or unionist, can stand over every statement made two years ago, much less 12 years back. It is a measure of how difficult republicans find the whole question of decommissioning that, to stave off further pressure, they have promised movement on another demand: that they will try to recover the bodies of people buried secretly by the IRA long ago.

There is one other move: the appointment of Martin McGuinness to discuss decommissioning with General de Chastelain. The general has described their first meeting diplomatically. The SF man, he said, discussed the subject with him in terms of the necessity to demilitarise Northern Ireland including security force installations, Army, police and mainly Protestant- held legal guns, as well as paramilitary arms. Who better to eke out the next fudge, or genuine shift, than the authorised keeper of the elastic republican conscience.

Fionnuala O'Connor

Life Story

Origins: Born 25 May 1950, brought up in Derry's Bogside.

Vital statistics: Aged 48, married to Bernadette, two daughters, two sons.

Influences: Bobby Sands and other hunger strikers. And Tashunka Witko (Crazy Horse) who was run through with a bayonet by a US soldier in jail. His dying words were: "All we wanted was peace and to be left alone."

Weakness: Has begun to write poetry. Published examples described sunset from a plane window and sea-trout.

Critics say: "He is like all annihilatory radicals: every one the same combination of virtue and psychosis." (Daily Telegraph)

On Himself: "You can go mad, you can be born again, you can do all sorts of different things. I think you do what Sinn Fein has done over the last 10 years; you face up to the very difficult task of how you resolve conflict."(Irish Times)

Future: If a peaceful settlement lasts, how would he spend his time? "I'd be fly-fishing in the Cranna river in Donegal."