- 21 Mar 17
Our man Jason O'Toole had to hum 'Whiter Shade Of Pale' before he was let into the Deputy First Minister's office!
"I don’t believe there’s a heaven, and I don’t believe there’s a hell. I don’t know what’s out there. I would like to think that there is some place where people go, where they will be happy. But I would hate to think that there are people out there who would be condemned to an eternity of suffering and torture and abuse. I don’t think that the God that I believe in believes in that type of punishment for eternity. I think that I have an open mind about all of this."
Martin McGuinness was one of the key figures in the troubles in Northern Ireland. Many unionists believe that the one-time IRA member was at the heart of much that was wrong and divisive in Irish life. But ultimately the quiet Derryman has taken on the role of peacemaker – and he is now the Deputy First Minister in the new power-sharing administration at Stormont.
Martin McGuinness is in a buoyant, even playful, mood when we are first introduced at the door of his gargantuan office in Stormont. As we shake hands, the Deputy First Minister insists that I hum a few bars of a song. “Hum ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’. Otherwise I won’t let Hot Press into my office,” he cajoles.
As I turn down his kind offer to make a spectacle of myself, in front of his half-dozen aides who are now congregating at the door to see a ‘Free Stater’ humming out of tune, McGuinness reveals that he is passionate about music and how he used to enjoy the occasional read of Hot Press. He even light-heartedly jokes that his friends say he had an uncanny resemblance to Art Gartfunkel in his younger days. Even now, you can see there is a resemblance.
From this first impression, it is difficult to conceive that this laid-back, jovial grandfather played – allegedly, it must be stressed – an instrumental role in the IRA’s bloody campaign to purge the British presence from Northern Ireland.
Born in 1950, McGuinness joined the IRA at the age of 20. One year later, he was second-in-command of the Provisional IRA in Derry – it is the only position he admits to ever holding – during the Bloody Sunday massacre, which saw 14 innocent civil rights marchers slaughtered by British soldiers. While the accusation has been circulated that McGuinness fired the first shot that sparked off the indiscriminate shooting by the British troops, most eyewitness accounts vigorously deny that any shots ever emanated from the crowd that day, and McGuinness himself is scathingly dismissive of the accusation. Badgered about this allegation, during the course of this Hot Press interview, McGuinness is adamant that it is “a cock and bull story”.
Despite being arrested several times – and convicted of IRA membership – McGuinness never served a lengthy prison sentence. During the height of the troubles, however, he was banned from entering Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
McGuinness was allegedly a member of the IRA’s Army Council and was, on one occasion, described by Unionists as the “IRA godfather of godfathers”. Regardless of whatever titles he may or may not have held, there is no disputing the fact that McGuinness, along with Gerry Adams, has been – and remains – one of the most influential figures within the Irish Republican movement.
McGuinness’ high-ranking role is verified by the fact that the Republican movement turned to him to represent them during their initial, secret talks with British intelligence, back in the 1970s and ‘80s. He went on to become Sinn Féin’s chief negotiator in the 1990s and helped secure the Good Friday Agreement.
Jason O’Toole: Some political pundits are suggesting that Ian Paisley’s attitude can be sometimes patronising towards you.
Martin McGuinness: With my own track record with Irish Republicanism, the last thing I am going to do is allow anybody to patronise me. So I don’t see it that way at all. But I suppose that comes from this use of the term, ‘My Deputy.’ And some people might be hurt at that – I’m not in the least hurt by it because Ian Paisley knows, as well as I do and as well as everybody else within the political system, that we are absolutely co-equal. This isn’t going to work unless both of us reach agreement on vital issues, and thus far we have been doing that.
Jason: How are you finding it, working alongside the Reverend Ian Paisley?
Martin: We are basically getting to know one another. Ian Paisley has a particular personality. I don’t have any difficulty at all with how he applies that personality. The main thing for me is to be satisfied that I am involved in a political relationship with someone who is absolutely committed to making this work. I have to say, from all of my experience, I am convinced that I am dealing with someone who wants this to work. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be difficulties and problems down the road. All of the meetings I have had with Ian Paisley have been very cordial, very courteous, very positive, and very constructive. So, you have to take people as you find them.
Jason: How can the Rev. Ian Paisley bring anything positive to the Assembly after he spent most of his political career blocking progressive initiatives?
Martin: I think that is a legitimate question for anybody who is a student of Irish history. But, at the same time, I think that no one should consider – whatever someone’s track record in the past – that that makes him ineligible to be part of positive political developments. What I am essentially saying is that we have to deal with the here and now. The past is the past. We are not going to forget the past. I have my view of Ian Paisley’s past, just as he has his view of my past.
Jason: You believe that this partnership with Paisley will work successfully?
Martin: What we are charged with doing now, by the electorate, is to take all of us forward to a better future. And, thus far, in all of my dealings with Ian Paisley I think that he has been committed to doing that. I am hoping that will continue through the lifetime of this Assembly. And that the collective efforts of all of us will totally transform the situation in this country – where we can assign to the dustbin of history all of the injustices, discrimination and inequalities of the past, and all of the conflict, violence and death, and move forward to building a better future for the people we represent.
Jason: But the public have been sceptical of this arrangement working…
Martin: Those people who want to stand on the sidelines, like hurlers on the ditch, shouting abuse at those who have propelled a situation forward politically are entitled to do that – I would defend to the bitter end their right to be critical of me. But what they should do is – as some of them did do in the course of the Assembly elections – they should put themselves up for election and abide by the verdict of the people. The people have spoken – and the people have voted for this.
Jason: What you are saying is, it is a case of democracy has spoken.
Martin: I think that both Ian Paisley and I - obviously I don’t speak for him, but I think we are both very conscious that whenever the electorate go out to vote for Assembly elections, a lot of people were saying that people are sceptical, they don’t think this will work. People came out in large numbers and voted for the DUP and Sinn Fein. They gave us an overwhelming mandate to do what we have just done and, I think, we have to be true to those people. And the only way we can be true to those people is to work together.
Jason: How come Sinn Fein didn’t oppose the Unionist motion to re-join the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association?
Martin: Well, I mean (sighs)… This wasn’t about the Assembly, as an Assembly, being part of the Commonwealth. This was about, I suppose, the relationship between what will be some members of this Assembly and, more probably the Unionist parties, wanting to have an input into that body. The Commonwealth is not something to which we in Sinn Fein would give any allegiance whatsoever, but we do understand that there are people here who have a different view, who wish to have a relationship on a parliamentary level with that body. So that really doesn’t present any great difficulties for us.
Jason: But Sinn Fein’s recent equality bill for women was rejected by Unionists in the Assembly.
Martin: Yes. It was obviously disappointing, but I think that we are in the early stages in all of this. The Assembly has just started meeting again and items are up for debate – and, obviously, you win some and you lose some. The type of process that we have here now, obviously what the work requires is agreement between the First and Deputy First Minister – and, of course, basically Sinn Fein and the DUP because of the electoral strengths of those parties in the new Assembly. So, I think there will be issues that we will succeed on, and there will be others where we won’t succeed. And it will be the same also for the DUP.
Jason: Is a united Ireland still your main agenda?
Martin: I get a wee bit hurt at times that, when people like myself raise the prospect of a united Ireland, some people will snap at you as if you haven’t got the right to speak about it which is, you know – OK – what sort of a democratic process is that? That I, as an Irish Republican, can’t articulate a view that will say I am part of a process to establish it (united Ireland), which I believe – worked properly by myself as a Republican leader – will lead to a united Ireland at some stage in the future?
Jason: Are we going to see a united Ireland?
Martin: I believe we are on a countdown to a united Ireland, but it must happen by purely peaceful and democratic means. Already, many Unionists at grassroots level have conceded that there will be a united Ireland at some stage in the future. The argument, for example, against the economic partition of Ireland has been won – everybody is now talking about the need for an all-Ireland economy because that is good for people North and South, for all over the island, for Unionists, Nationalists, Republicans and Loyalists. And I think we can make a very convincing case that the ending of all the old divisions and the building of new relationships – among the business community, within the health service, within education, within the road networks – all of these things will bring us to a point where we will recognise that the borders, as we have known them since Ireland was partitioned, need to be removed.
Jason: Will we see a united Ireland in my lifetime?
Martin: I very much hope that we see it in Ian Paisley’s lifetime!
Jason: Where will Northern Ireland be in 20 years?
Martin: The next two terms of this Assembly, which will be eight years, will be absolutely critical. I think that if we continue to work in the way that we have been working, over the last number of weeks, we can totally and absolutely transform the situation – and all of that will feed into the healing process, because there are an awful lot of victims out there who have been very badly hurt by the conflict.
Jason: Some of which the IRA were responsible for…
Martin: There have been people who have been hurt as a result of the state violence, because of the war that effectively went on here – you know, the IRA were very much a part of that, so nobody has a monopoly on suffering. There are IRA volunteers’ families out there who are still hurting at their losses. The families of British soldiers, in England and other parts of Scotland and Wales, are hurt too. Just as are people within the RUC, and the RIR and the UDR who lost loved ones. And all of these people are hurting. Many of them are hugely supportive of this process. There are others who are less supportive.
Jason: So you believe that the Assembly can help the healing process?
Martin: I actually think there is a majority here who are supportive, but there’s now a different level of opposition to what we’re doing. And I think that one of the key objectives for all of us, over the next two terms of the Assembly, is to do as much as we can to help the healing process. I think that if we keep this going – you know, 15 years from now or 20 years from now – this place will change beyond belief, and the people will increasingly see the benefits of working together. And I think, ultimately, we can be very optimistic and look forward to Ireland being united. But, I stress, it can only now be done by purely peaceful and democratic means – and, surely, that threatens no one?
Jason: What is your assessment, so far, of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry?
Martin: It was a big decision for Tony Blair to agree that there should be a tribunal of inquiry into what happened on Bloody Sunday. The Widgery Tribunal shamed the British legal system as well, of course, as many others like the trials of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four. But I think that it remains to be seen what the outcome will be.
Jason: What’s your biggest concern in that regard?
Martin: There is considerable dissatisfaction with the fact that once a tribunal of inquiry was established – and huge amounts of money were poured into it – some of the rifles that were used by the Parachute regiment of Bloody Sunday disappeared, obviously, at the behest of the British military. We had 'public interest immunity certificates' produced left, right and centre. We had lawyers who went into the box dressed up as British agents, who tried to tell the tribunal that I had told someone that I fired the first shots on Bloody Sunday. I mean, a cock and bull story. And, of course, it has been proven that there was at least a dozen British army photographers on the push into the Free Derry Area – where those people were murdered. Those photographers took thousands of photographs – not one of which ever appeared before the tribunal.
Jason: So there is already a sense of disappointment with the tribunal?
Martin: Nobody in Derry is under any illusions about what happened – 14 people were murdered, and 13 or 14 others were very badly wounded. And the whole of Derry was in shock and trauma for some considerable time after it. It’s still a running sore. The families have every right to demand that this tribunal makes it quite clear that their loved ones are absolutely blameless for what happened.
Jason: How did the allegations accusing you of being a British spy affect you personally?
Martin: Obviously it was something that really annoyed me and my family. That said, most of my friends weren’t annoyed about it at all because they just regarded it as typical – I think that I described it as ‘hooey’ at the time, which it clearly was. But, I mean, the allegations were rubbish – total and absolute, confounded rubbish. And the vast majority of people, I think, understood that.
Jason: So, how did these allegations surface?
Martin: I think that whoever is propagating this notion tried to take advantage of the fact that it was common knowledge that I was charged, within the leadership of Sinn Fein, with trying to build a connection to the British Government in the early part of the 1990s, as part of our strategy to develop a peace process. And predating that, we did have the publication of two vital documents that Sinn Fein published, called ‘South Ireland for Peace’ and ‘Towards A Lasting Peace In Ireland’. And if you read those documents, you will see the roots of the peace process that was developed over the course of the following 10 or 15 years. So, at that time – with the full authorisation of the Sinn Fein leadership – I actually met with a representative of the British government, who I knew was also a member of MI6, and that meeting was fully authorised by the party.
Jason: the IRA know about that meeting?
Martin: The IRA were also told about it, and had no difficulty with me engaging in the meeting. This person was obviously authorised at the highest level of the British government to meet with me as the leader of Sinn Fein, and I’ve always believed that Margaret Thatcher actually authorised this, because the meeting took place one month before she left office in Downing Street. And so, in the aftermath of that Gerry Kelly and I – a short time after that – met with that person’s replacement and, I suppose, there are people out there who like to take advantage of these situations and place a label on you.
Jason: This allegation potentially put your life in danger?
Martin: I think it was intended to put my life in danger. Absolutely. I don’t have any doubt whatsoever that this was a militant force within British intelligence, or someone who had previous connections to British intelligence, who – with whatever information they had – added up two and two and they got nine. But I was always conscious that my role within the leadership of Irish Republicanism would at times have been a very dangerous role to play.
Jason: You have been described as the “IRA’s godfather of godfathers.”
Martin: It sounds like someone who absolutely believes in demonising Irish Republicanism. But no doubt – I don’t know where the quote came from – it probably came from some leading Unionist politician somewhere.
Jason: During the 1970s and ‘80s, unlike your counterparts, you successfully avoided receiving long prison sentences. How did you manage this?
Martin: I spent a lot of time in interrogation centres – and I was in prison. I was in Mountjoy prison, I was in The Glasshouse in the Curragh, I was in Portlaoise prison, I was in Crumlin Road prison. The only prison I wasn’t in was Long Kesh. The period in prison was – first time, six months; the second time it was a year. Now, I was consistently arrested by the RUC’s Special Branch in the North and brought for interrogation to Castle Bay and sometimes released after a full seven days, and brought back a week later for another seven days. And obviously, during all that time, I was able to keep my mouth shut!
Jason: How did you do that?
Martin: I sat and whatever was thrown at me, whatever was said, whatever abuse was offered, I sat there and that was it. So, I didn’t spend a lengthy period in prison. But that doesn’t prove anything. Absolutely nothing. It proves that I was well able to handle the interrogations that were imposed on me, and there were many of them over a course of a number of years.
Jason: In a recent edition of Hot Press, Trevor Sargent alleged that Green party members are being intimidated by Sinn Fein in the North. What’s your reaction to the allegation?
Martin: That’s a shock to me. I would say, if that was the case, the first thing Trevor should have done was lifted the phone to Gerry Adams or myself and said this was happening. I have to wait for Hot Press to tell me that this allegation was made? But I do believe that it is total and absolute rubbish. There are people associated with the Green Party here, who meet regularly with members of Sinn Fein on an ongoing basis. Why would the Republicans have a fear of the Green Party? The significant thing is that the allegation was never made to the leadership of Sinn Fein. None of us would even contemplate standing by and allowing such a circumstance. I mean, to be quite honest, in the absence of any incident, or evidence of an incident, I have to say that I think it is something to be taken with considerable caution.
Jason: When will the Irish Language Act be implemented?
Martin: The British government, in the course of the Saint Andrew’s negotiations, accepted that there should be an Irish Language Act. So we believe that Irish language speakers and enthusiasts are entitled to have the Irish language supported through the creation of an Irish Language Act. Obviously, all of this is work in progress, and we will see what develops over the course of the coming period. But there is a duty and a responsibility under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement for us to support, for example in terms of education, the whole concept of Irish language schools and integrated education. So, there actually is a duty and a responsibility on the Ministers to ensure that people are treated fairly. The commitments made by the British government at Saint Andrew’s will have to be honoured.
Jason: What can be done to resolve the tension and violence surrounding marching season?
Martin: We have to always keep this in a proper context. There are something like 3,000 Orange marches during the course of the summer period. The overwhelming majority of those are totally and absolutely non-contentious – there are only a handful of marches that create angst and difficulty. I think that the only way to resolve those marches is for people to sit down and engage in a dialogue. I believe, for example, people in Garvaghy Road have every right to decide whether or not they should have to accept an Orange march onto Garvaghy Road. I can’t take that decision – they have to decide. Whatever decision they make, I think, all democrats are duty-bound to support. I think the key to the marching season – so as to resolve the contentious marches – has to be a willingness on all sides, particularly the Orange Order and residents groups, to engage in real dialogue.
Jason: But have any of the contentious marches ever been resolved through dialogue?
Martin: I come from the North West in the Derry area – we were able to get a resolution in that area because of the willingness of the Bogside residents and people representing the Apprentice Boys to be involved in dialogue and discussion. The key is dialogue and discussion and treating people with respect. I think if people are not prepared to do that then I think they forfeit their right to make a case for marching.
Jason: In the last edition of Hot Press, Ian Paisley Jnr. told me: “Republicans wanted to get rid of the British from Ireland – that was their project. They did fail.”
Martin: But Ian Paisley Jnr. needs to be honest when it comes to talking about who didn’t achieve their goals. I mean, the goal of the DUP was to destroy the Good Friday Agreement (and) to smash Sinn Fein. Whatever about all of that, there is not much point in us getting into, you know, ‘You didn’t achieve your goal – and you didn’t achieve your goal.’ What happened is: we all essentially had to compromise to find a way forward. Failure to compromise was going to condemn this island to decades more of conflict. The reality is that a military stalemate ensued.
Jason: So you are saying the IRA were not defeated?
Martin: The British Army conceded publicly that they would never be able to defeat the IRA. And the IRA effectively accepted that they hadn’t got the military strength to force every last British solider down the Lagan. I think that the IRA were not militarily defeated and I know that grates on people within the British military establishment, who have been hostile to this process for some considerable time. But the IRA concession led to the involvement of Sinn Fein in the process in the autumn of 1997. Lo and behold, within a few months of entering into all-party peace talks, we had achieved the Good Friday Agreement – something that many people thought was impossible.
Jason: But you would agree that the Good Friday Agreement was a compromise for all involved?
Martin: Of course the Good Friday Agreement was a compromise. It was about ourselves signing up to coming back into parliament in Stormont, albeit this time on the basis of 50-50 – on equality. And the Unionists agreed to participate in the All-Ireland Ministerial Council. So, they are the foundation stones of the agreement. Around all of that, there is the whole business of human rights commissions, equality commissions, policing reform, and the whole ethos of equality running right through everything we are about. Within a few months, Ian Paisley (Snr.) and I will lead our ministers to meet with the new Southern government, in Armagh. Compromise has been a dirty word in Irish politics in the past – but I am proud of the compromise that we have made. And Ian Paisley would probably have regarded compromise as a dirty word in the past – he too has compromised, and we have now reached a point where we have a political agreement going forward.
Jason: Do you think that the families of the disappeared will have a resolution in the near future?
Martin: I passionately hope so. Ian Paisley and myself have agreed that this is an issue that needs to be resolved. And the leadership of Sinn Fein are very passionate about trying to resolve it. The fact that there is now a forensic expert involved – who has been involved for the last number of years – trying to come at this with a scientific approach, only came about because Sinn Fein insisted. And the government conceded that this was the sensible way forward. It has obviously been brought into sharp focus, during the course of the last couple of weeks, with the very sad death of Mrs (Vera) McVeigh, Colomba McVeigh’s mother. I think that a terrible injustice was done to the families of those who are missing. And I think that, while there has been some success in recovering some of the bodies – I think largely due to the co-operation of IRA members who had knowledge – there is still more work to be done to ensure that the remaining families get the peace that they deserve. I accept that the only way they will get peace in their lives is to see a successful outcome.
Jason: Do you believe in God?
Martin: I do. I am a practising Catholic, but I also believe that if I had been born on the Shankill Road, I’d probably have been a practising Protestant. Or if I had have been born in India, I would have been a practising supporter of Buddhism. Or if I was born in the southern states of America, I might have been a Mormon. I actually have a very broadminded view of religion.
Jason: You are saying that all religions should be considered equal.
Martin: I haven’t got a sectarian bone in my body. I believe that people have rights – they have the right to believe in whatever they want to believe in, and the last thing any of us should be is critical of anybody else. My father was a very, very religious person. God rest him, he died in 1973. But, all of his life, he was a daily mass goer – but he was one of the most broadminded people I ever met in my life. His closest friend was a fellow worker – he was a Protestant – and the two of them were like brothers. We were brought up to respect everybody’s religion – and to respect those who don’t believe in anything. I have to say that I respect all of them – I am very broadminded with all of that. There are times I sit in Protestant churches for different events that I am invited to, and I feel as comfortable in a Protestant church, or Church of Ireland, or Methodist church, as I would in a Catholic church.
Jason: Do you believe in heaven and hell?
Martin: That is a difficult question. I don't have the answer. I don’t believe there’s a heaven, and I don’t believe there’s a hell. I don’t know what’s out there. I would like to think that there is some place where people go, where they will be happy. But I would hate to think that there are people out there who would be condemned to an eternity of suffering and torture and abuse. I don’t think that the God that I believe in believes in that type of punishment for eternity. I think that I have an open mind about all of this.
Jason: What are your views of Bono accepting a knighthood from the British monarch?
Martin: A lot of Irish people are hurt at that. Bono, I think, does a tremendous amount of work. He is very sincere, genuine and committed to ending poverty in the world – and fighting for all the good causes, including the fight against Aids in the Third World. I think he is very genuine about all of that. So, I am very reluctant to be in any way critical of him. I can try to understand where is he coming from. I would never accept a knighthood from the British government under any circumstances (I'm unlikely to be offered one), but the last thing I intend to be is critical of someone who, I think, does an amazing amount of good in the world.
Jason: What type of music do you like?
Martin: All kinds. Traditional Irish music, the odd pop song – I like Snow Patrol. I love ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ – my favourite tune. Simon and Garfunkel – not because some people say I looked, when I was younger, like Art Garfunkel. I have a lot of friends who thought that. I like Mozart. I like a wide range of music. I love to hear music from all parts of the world. I like Mary Black and Frances Black, Christy Moore, Planxty, Hothouse Flowers. You thought I knew nothing about all these people (laughs).
Jason: Do you have an iPod?
Martin: I don’t have an iPod but I have promised myself to get one. My children tell me all the time that I should get one. I don’t get a lot of time to listen to music.
Jason: Did you ever try marijuana?
Martin: Never. Swear to God! I don’t even know what it looks like! I have never tried any of that stuff at all. I’d rather sit in the house with a cup of tea watching Match of the Day, or the Sunday Game. I don’t drink pints at all – I would drink the odd glass of red wine with a meal, but that’s it. My big passion in life is fly-fishing when I get a chance, and my first love in sports is Gaelic games – supporting my county, Derry. And if Derry is not in it, I’ll support Tyrone. I have been supporting Derry City (soccer team) since I was an infant.
Jason: What do you think of the idea of a united Irish football team?
Martin: A brilliant idea. It would give us a far better chance. Absolutely, it makes sense. I actually think that the creation of the Setanta Cup has been a very positive development. You can make an obvious argument for an all-Ireland league on a political basis, but I would make the argument for the need for an all-Ireland league on a sporting basis – because the soccer on the island of Ireland, in my opinion, would get much stronger if it was organised on a 32-county basis.