McGuinness stays cool under fire over his IRA role on Bloody Sunday

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The Independent Online

Martin McGuinness was remarkably relaxed on his first day in the witness box at the Bloody Sunday legal tribunal yesterday, openly discussing his role in the IRA, its rifles and arms dumps and command structure.

The 53-year-old republican, who is an MP and was Northern Ireland's Education minister, had walked through the area where the Army shot dead 14 people in 1972, on his way to the inquiry at the Guildhall in Londonderry. But he was at ease while he spoke of his activities in the IRA in the city.

He retained a certain ministerial authority before the ranks of lawyers at the inquiry, many of whom were hoping his insistence that IRA men fired no shots on that day would be demolished.

At one stage the Sinn Fein politician was warned by Lord Saville of Newdigate, chairman of the inquiry, that his refusal to answer questions over the location of an arms dump and a safe house would expose him to the charge that he had something to hide. But he was forthcoming about what he and the IRA were up to at the time.

"There was a state of war between the IRA and British military forces. This was a war area," he said. "The night before the march I was involved patrolling with an active service unit. If the British military at any time had entered, then IRA volunteers would have taken them on militarily."

Christopher Clarke QC, counsel for the inquiry, asked him not to mince words. He said: "Taking them on militarily means shooting them, does it not?" Without hesitation Mr McGuinness said: "Absolutely, yes."

Mr McGuinness, who as Sinn Fein's chief negotiator has dealt with prime ministers and presidents, said he was second-in-command of the IRA's Derry command on Bloody Sunday.

Within weeks he took over the organisation in the city. At the time, hundreds of British soldiers were in Northern Ireland. Many were killed by the IRA, which also blew up scores of local businesses. Mr McGuinness said: "The primary purpose of the IRA was to attack the British Army. There was also a strategy to attack business premises in order to stretch the British Army and to gain maximum advantage over what were undoubtedly superior - numerically that is - military forces."

He said the IRA in Londonderry had only 40 to 50 members, aged between 20 and 23, though they had the sympathy of thousands of others. "I think you have to remember that all of us were very young," he said. "We were not well organised - we were making it up as we went along."

He said their arsenal was not large: "Ten rifles of various kinds, some of them very old, about half a dozen short arms and perhaps two or three sub-machine guns." The whole lot would have probably have fitted into a large car, he added.

The reason he was so sure that the IRA had not opened fire on Bloody Sunday, he said, was that he and another member had placed the guns in a "closed dump" and only they had access to it.

He apologised for taking more than a year to reply to the inquiry's requests for him to give evidence, saying his appearance at the hearing was "a huge decision". He said that his appearance had implications for Sinn Fein and the peace process in Northern Ireland.

He had worried that for progressive Unionists learning about his IRA position would be "a bit of a thunderbolt". Once in the box, however, he appeared poised as he resisted pressure to supply more details.

Lord Saville complained that Mr McGuinness would not disclose the location of the closed dump, or where the IRA met in the Bogside, or whether he had previously been a member of another grouping, the Official IRA. He also declined to confirm that an IRA member, Sean Keenan, was the explosives officer, although Mr Keenan had already admitted that he held the position.

After a break for consultations with hishigh-powered legal team, and after receiving an assurance on immunity, Mr McGuinness relented on some points. He admitted that he had briefly been in the Official IRA. But he would not reveal the location of the arms dumps and safe houses. He said: "There is a republican code of honour. For me to identify them would be a betrayal.

"I have been in interrogation centre after interrogation centre, sometimes for a week at a time, and I have never ever on any occasion given the name of a single person. This is a deeply personal thing for me."

He said that he and the rest of the IRA had been amazed when the civil rights march on 30 January 1972 ended not in a riot, which was traditional, but with gunfire. Twenty seven local men suffered gunshot wounds, 14 of whom died from their injuries. He was adamant that the IRA had fired no guns and thrown no bombs.

He was plainly annoyed when allegations were put to him contradicting his version of events. Most of these came from a former republican, Paddy Ward, who fled the city years ago and is now on a witness protection scheme.

It was put to Mr McGuinness that he had handed out nail bombs, been seen with a Thompson sub-machine gun, and been involved in other activities incompatible with his account. He repeatedly used the word "rubbish" to describe the accusations. And he was scathing about Mr Ward, saying: "Mr Ward is a fantasist. Mr Ward is a liar. Mr Ward is an informer. His evidence is a tissue of lies."

He complained that the tribunal was putting this "rubbish" on the record. Lord Saville replied that he was being given the opportunity to respond to the allegations. Mr McGuinness said: "The whole thing is mad - the whole thing is crazy."

Lord Saville, who has chaired the Bloody Sunday inquiry since it began more than five years ago, delivered a reply which perhaps contained an implicit objection of his own. The judge, who has more witnesses to hear before spending months writing his report, said: "I follow that, Mr McGuinness. But this is one day for us out of 390."


* Yesterday was the 390th day of the hearings

* Martin McGuinness was the 853rd witness

* About 900 witnesses will be called to give evidence

* 1,700 people have given statements to the inquiry

* 35 bundles of evidence comprising 129 volumes of text, 30 audiotapes and 61 videos have been sent to the interested parties

* By June 2003, the cost to the Government was £113.2m, with the additional cost of moving the inquiry from Londonderry to London put at £15m. The total cost is estimated at £155m

* The inquiry was announced to Parliament by Tony Blair on 29 January 1998. Oral hearings started on 27 March 2000, at the Guildhall, Londonderry

* The opening speech by the counsel to the inquiry, Christopher Clarke, lasted 42 days and is the longest in British legal history

* About 13.5 million words have been spoken at the hearings

* The inquiry sat at Central Hall, Westminster, from 24 September 2002, to 21 October 2003

* There have been 8.5 million hits on the inquiry's website

* The taking of evidence is expected to end by 19 December 2003

* The closing stages of the inquiry, including submissions, will be in the first half of 2004, after which the tribunal report will be written