Martin McGuinness: Memories of a street-fighting man

He would, he told the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, die rather than reveal where the IRA hid its weapons on that fateful day in Londonderry. And, yet, he says, his war is over and his job now, as a politician, is to prevent further deaths on either side. In his extraordinary life, the past and future of Northern Ireland collide
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The Independent Online

Bill Clinton once recalled: "I had Martin McGuinness bragging to me that he'd given the schools with the Protestant kids in them at least as much as he'd done with the Catholic kids, and how fair he was being."

The republican who was grilled for two days last week at the Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday - and declared that he would rather die than disclose where the IRA hid its weapons on that day in Londonderry in 1972 - was regarded by many as the most effective of all ministers when he headed Northern Ireland's department of education.

The conspicuous ability of the Bogside boy came as a surprise to many, since he himself had had a limited formal education, leaving school at 15 and becoming an apprentice butcher. But his eventful life has made him not only ruthlessness and unflinchingly determined but has also given him a quick and supple mind. He has excelled at most of things he has turned his hand to since he walked away from his last conventional job: preparing pre-packed meats at Doherty's in Londonderry in 1971. He became a full-time street-fighter, rising to be second-in-command of the city's IRA and then taking over as OC (officer commanding) just after Bloody Sunday.

He proved gifted at guerrilla warfare, fashioning the Derry IRA into an awesome killing unit. In 1971 and '72, he and his men were heavily outnumbered and outgunned by hundreds of troops. Yet they killed 27 soldiers and laid waste to much of the city's commercial heart. He was lucky to survive that period: many of his IRA associates did not. Last week he told the tribunal during his two days on the witness stand: "There was a state of war between the IRA and British military forces. This was a war area." The IRA was not the only killing agency: the Army shot 13 people dead on Bloody Sunday (a 14th died later).

One man's terrorism is another's freedom struggle and McGuinness - and republicanism generally - has never deviated from the defiant stance that he was fighting against a hostile army of occupation. Although he and his republican movement have moved on since the turbulent times of hectic violence, when he routinely handled rifles and nail bombs, they still regard those times with pride. It is an indelible part of their past and they will never repudiate it.

A formative experience for McGuinness came a few months after Bloody Sunday, when the Conservative government flew him, with Gerry Adams and other republican leaders, to London for secret talks. The republicans demanded a united Ireland; the British declined and the conflict continued. McGuinness recalled much later: "It's like a lifetime away. We were only children really."

It left him with the sense that any chance of real negotiation was years away. Some of those years he spent in jail, serving two sentences in the Irish Republic for IRA membership. Then, in the late 1970s, he, Adams and other militant Northerners seized control of republicanism, denouncing the southern old guard as soft and out of touch. The two men have had the closest of relationships ever since. The IRA was reshaped and streamlined to fight a long war, a lengthy conflict of attrition designed to eventually get the British out.

The IRA managed to survive all that the British could throw at them, but its campaign did not push Britain out. It also cost many lives: the IRA killing, on average, 60 people a year.

When Sinn Fein unexpectedly became an effective political vehicle in the wake of the 1981 hunger strikes, most republicans welcomed the development. However, some worried that the new direction would undermine the "armed struggle". And when some volunteers felt that Adams was rather too political for their taste, McGuinness played a key role in providing reassurance. As an icon of implacable militancy, his approval of the new tack calmed hardliners.

Although he has since become ever more deeply involved in politics, first as MP for Mid-Ulster, later as a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, no one thinks he is pursuing power for its own sake or for personal gain. He has always lived in a little house in the Bogside; fathering four children in what is, by all accounts, an extremely stable marriage. He attends mass regularly - he did so on the morning of Bloody Sunday - and lists his hobbies as fly-fishing and chess. Another regular activity, this time involuntary, was his detention in police interrogation centres, where he was questioned for up to seven days at a time.

In more recent times, he has been to rather less oppressive institutions of the state, such as 10 Downing Street. He was particularly enchanted by Chequers, describing it as "a fairly amazing place, absolutely beautiful, with a very relaxed atmosphere".

Many see him as one of Ireland's most fascinating politicians and, close up, he does a great line in twinkling geniality. Even the Spectator editor and Tory MP, Boris Johnson, succumbed to his "great friendliness and charm".

Yet the shadow of death has often been close. The loyalist assassin Michael Stone tried to kill him twice, once at a republican funeral. Stone recalled: "I planned to shoot McGuinness and Adams, two head shots, as they passed the roll of honour. That was their cenotaph, and that's where they were going to die." But his view was obstructed. On another occasion, Stone sat in a car, armed with a .38 revolver and an Armalite rifle, opposite the newsagent where McGuinness picked up his morning newspapers. But McGuinness did not show up that day. And so he lived on.

McGuinness was once again to the forefront in the next phase of activity: the peace process. This was a troubling concept for many activists, who had always assumed that they were in the IRA to make war rather than peace. In the years of tortuous and often secret negotiations that followed, McGuinness was designated as Sinn Fein's chief negotiator, once again giving vital cloud cover to Adams's pragmatic compromises.

He met a British intelligence officer to help get things moving; later he met ministers, as well as Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. Before one meeting involving a senior civil servant, Quentin Thomas, officials were nervous that McGuinness might be armed. Thomas turned down the suggestion that he be required to pass through metal detectors, later recalling with a wry smile: "I said that if Martin McGuinness was to come in and pull out a gun and plug me, I would have to conclude that our analysis was based on a false premise."

McGuinness did not shoot Thomas and the peace process moved slowly onward to the point where he and his colleagues have approved the winding down of IRA activity, together with three acts of arms decommissioning. Along the way, McGuinness entered a new phase, evolving into one of republicanism's most prominent political practitioners. A year ago he said in an interview: "My war is over. My job as a political leader is to prevent war. My job is to ensure a political set of circumstances that will never again see British soldiers or members of the IRA lose their lives."

Blair, Clinton and others believe him; and, furthermore, believe that he and Adams have the authority to bring the rest of republicanism along with them. Part of the way they do this is by continually demonstrating to the grassroots that politics works.

In the early years, Martin McGuinness looked like a fearsome but uncomplicated republican volunteer, capable of killing many soldiers. Later, as a more senior commander, he proved himself capable of keeping the war going. Today, as a politician, he is less violent but no less ardent a republican. The man who was once an icon of IRA militancy is living proof for republicans that they can pursue their aims without people having to die.