I only ever met Martin McGuinness once. It was January 31, 1972, the day after Bloody Sunday, when we had a brief exchange in an upstairs room overlooking the Bogside in Derry. An extremely callow correpondent in the North for the then Cork Examiner, I was a Protestant, of Unionist background. He was the local leader of the Provisional IRA.
The previous afternoon had been horrendous, with 13, later 14, Catholics, none of them armed, shot dead by the Parachute Regiment in the middle of a rally against internment. As it happened, having been held up by the RUC and Army at road blocks some five miles east, I had missed the shootings. If I had known there would be a massacre, I would have started out earlier from Belfast.
McGuinness that day was still the “butcher boy” of his early photographs, with a shock of red, curly hair and a shiny pink complexion. He had a firm jaw and twinkling eyes. I felt obliged to express my sympathy for the victims. He nodded, telling me that what the Brits had started the IRA would finish.
I then added (proof here of my ingénue status) that, though a Prod, I favoured a united Ireland, which was one reason I worked for the Examiner rather than the Belfast Telegraph or the News Letter. He nodded again.
“So you believe in the Republican cause?”
I was sweating now. “Well, up to a point. It’s just that … “
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He interrupted. “If that’s what you believe, then you should join the cause.”
“I don’t think I could do that,” I stammered. “I’m a journalist, not a ….”
McGuinness gazed out of the window towards what had so recently been the British Army’s killing ground.
“You’re a strange boy, Walter,” he told me. And I was ushered away.
Forty-five years later, McGuinness is himself dead, aged 66. Some, including my colleague Iain Martin, founder and editor of Reaction, have been unsparing in their condemnation of the former Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, whose ten or so years as an active IRA combatant and, subsequent time as a leading member of the Provisional Army Council, were marked by massacres and mayhem.
I understand this. For there is no question that McGuinness personally took part in murderous attacks on the police and Army. And he was very much to the fore in ordering the virtual destruction of Derry city centre. He may also have colluded in the “disappearances” of opponents of the IRA within the Catholic and nationalist community. In other words, he was a terrorist.
But people change, even terrorists, and McGuinness was probably the most important of these. Without ever repudiating his past, he went on, with Gerry Adams and John Hume, to usher in the Peace Process that in 1998 yielded the Good Friday Agreement. He then entered democratic politics, sitting down with Unionists and Loyalists whose ideology he had previously despised. Later still, he shook hands with the Queen This was no mean feat – for either of them.
I genuinely believe that he became a different person with the passage of the years. That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have served time. He was a murderer and a bomber. But then thousands of other Republicans, loyalists, policemen and soldiers were also responsible for the chaos, the cruelty and the madness of the Troubles. As well as that, much of the civilian population of Northern Ireland backed one side or the other. While they condemned the worst outrages, they were still glad their their side was in the fight.
McGuinness, a staunch Catholic, was part of that, and more ruthless than most. But I am convinced that his later life was marked by regret and a sense of guilt that not even Confession could assuage. He never waivered about his Republicanism and his ultimate goal of a united Ireland. But he knew deep down inside that having escaped paying his dues in this life, he would have questions to answer in the next.
If he could have lived his time over again with the knowledge he had gained in his latter years, he would probably not have been as cavalier as he was with the lives of others. But in that event, he would never have made it to be Deputy First Minister. That position would have gone to somebody else, less amenable to compromise.
Those who condemn him now, which understandably includes Lord Tebbit, a victim, along with his wife, of the Brighton bombing, should reflect on the doctrine of repentance, which underpins Christianity. I am no believer, but McGuinness was, as, of course, was Ian Paisley, his arch enemy for many years but at the end his close friend and confidant
I would not be surprised to learn that McGuinness had, at it were, “confessed” to Paisley and received the Free Presbyterian equivalent of absolution – “You may have to burn in Hell, Martin, but I’ll do what I can”. it could even be that the DUP leader confessed to McGuinness in his turn, for the Reverend Ian’s career was not exactly that of an orthodox minister.
Either way, the two learned to work effectively together to confirm peace in the North and to promote the beginnings – only the beginnings – of reconciliation between the two communities. When we look at Northern Ireland today, which entirely lacks politicians of the stature of either McGuinness or Paisley (or Hume), we ought to be thankful that they at least hung around long enough to open the windows of mutual understanding.