McGuinness's route to his office is an educational tour of loyalist heartland

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The Independent Online

Martin McGuinness's journey to work these days takes him past Palace Barracks, the long-time base of the Parachute Regiment, the soldiers responsible for the Bloody Sunday shootings in his home town of Londonderry. In the old days he might well have gazed at the sprawling complex on the outskirts of east Belfast with an appraising republican eye tuned to evaluating its defences.

Martin McGuinness's journey to work these days takes him past Palace Barracks, the long-time base of the Parachute Regiment, the soldiers responsible for the Bloody Sunday shootings in his home town of Londonderry. In the old days he might well have gazed at the sprawling complex on the outskirts of east Belfast with an appraising republican eye tuned to evaluating its defences.

Now the name of the game is politics, and his official car takes him each morning down to the Ministry of Education headquarters, 12 miles from Belfast. It is unfamiliar territory geographically as well as psychologically, for the ministry is based in a Protestant heartland far from any republican district.

It is entirely appropriate that his new headquarters should be called Rathgael, which translates as "fort of the Irish" for Mr McGuinness is pretty much surrounded. This is alien territory for a republican.

The building is close to the town of Bangor, Co Down, where many Protestant families fled to get away from the troubles. Only a smattering of Catholics live in those parts, and absolutely no republicans are in evidence.

The main route to Rathgael from Belfast takes the minister through predominantly Protestant territory all the way. He passes close by the training depot of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the force he wishes to see abolished, then sweeps past Palace Barracks with its rows of army houses nestling behind rows of security fencing. The North Down area is studded with such security installations, based there because their distance from any republican area was a useful defence against IRA attack.

The minister's car then passes the town of Hollywood, with its Catholic church which was recently rebuilt after being burnt to the ground by loyalist vandals. Then it reaches Cultra, known locally as the gold coast because this is the stockbroker belt, the Surrey of Northern Ireland. Mr McGuinness will look in vain for any reassuring Irish tricolour flags tied to lampposts, for this area regards itself as thoroughly British.

The turn-off towards Rathgael then takes the Sinn Fein leader past a large structure bearing the stern injunction: "Free Presbyterian church and Christian school - ye must be born again." Since this is run by the Rev Ian Paisley's church, the minister need not expect an invitation to drop in and pat the children's heads.

Rathgael itself is an undistinguished 1960s eight-storey office block near a ring-road roundabout. And just down the road, the Breezemount housing estate, decorated with loyalist and Union flags, is a pocket of loyalist militancy. Its kerbstones are painted red, white and blue while its gable-walls bear large brightly painted tributes to the loyalist cause in general and the Red Hand Commandos in particular.

Its residents can look over a few fields and see the building that houses their new Education Minister; he presumably can glance out of one of his windows and see them and their bright colours. And everyone can marvel at how far everyone has come, and at the three eventful decades it has taken for Martin McGuinness to make the historic journey from the Bogside to Bangor.

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