- 21 Mar 17
His entry into the Presidential race came as a bombshell, throwing many political commentators, as well as the Fine Gael party, into a tailspin. It has also been the catalyst to a surge in support in the opinion polls for Sinn Féin. So who is Martin McGuinness? What is he like as a man? And can a self-confessed former IRA leader convince the Irish peope that he has what it takes to be the President?
Of the seven individuals standing in this Presidential election, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness is by far the most controversial, leaving even Senator David Norris in the shade.
Although the 61-year-old Derryman claims to have left the IRA in 1974, not everybody believes him, least of all the Sunday Independent, who openly mock his supposed aspirations to become a “Hibernian Mandela”.
For many years, leading unionists have accused him of being a senior member of the IRA’s Army Council and, on one occasion,he was labelled the “IRA godfather of godfathers.”
And yet while there’s an undeniable whiff of sulphur about the man, it’s also true that, along with Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, McGuinness has been one of the most influential figures within the modern Irish republican movement, driving its development of a political strategy even during the darkest days of the Troubles, and leading the party’s devolution negotiations.
Intelligent, articulate and seemingly dispassionate, McGuinness has been negotiating for most of his adult life. His first meeting with British politicians came in July 1972 when the Provisional leadership was secretly taken to London for what would tun out to be failed talks with the UK government. Although he avoided internment, in 1973 he was convicted by the Republic of Ireland’s Special Criminal Court, after being caught in a car containing 113kg of explosives and nearly 5,000 rounds of ammunition. He refused to recognise the court, and was sentenced to six months imprisonment. During the trial, he declared his membership of the Provisional IRA without equivocation: “We have fought against the killing of our people... I am a member of Óglaigh na hÉireann, and very, very proud of it.”
As the Troubles worsened in the ‘80s and ‘90s, McGuinness and Adams continued to spearhead a political strategy through Sinn Fein. Although he was elected to the short-lived assembly of the early ‘80s, that strategy really bore fruit for the party when the pair were returned as MPs in the 1997 general election (McGuinness for the Mid-Ulster constituency).
Having been the party’s chief negotiator in the Good Friday Agreement talks, he became Education Minister following his election to the new Northern Ireland Assembly. He has taken time out from his current position as deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland to contest the Presidential election.
This interview took place on the afternoon of Tuesday, October 4th, in the basement of his busy Capel Street campaign HQ. Although his campaign manager attempted to sit in, he left without argument at Hot Press’ request...
OLAF TYARANSEN: When did you decide to run for the Presidency?
MARTIN McGUINNESS: There was considerable discussion about the fact that there was going to be a Presidential election, and I suppose that among my contemporaries there were initially divided opinions on whether or not Sinn Fein should support a candidate to stand in the election. But it became clear that there was a gathering momentum behind that, that Sinn Fein should support a candidate. And then people’s thoughts turned to who that should be, and I know that names were articulated in the media, but at that stage a number of people at leadership level came to me and said that it looked as if the party would opt to run a candidate and that they believed it should be me.
Did you give them an immediate answer?
I told them I had to think about it. That was just before the Sinn Féin Árd Fheis in Belfast and that ended on a Saturday. I flew out on Sunday morning with Peter Robinson to the United States on a trade mission to Los Angeles, San Diego, Chicago and New York. So I told our people back home that I’d think about it when I was in America, that I would make a decision before I came back and let them know. So I rang Gerry Adams on the Thursday and told him that I was prepared to do it. Within an hour of that I spoke to Peter Robinson, out of respect for the work that he and I have done, I explained to him what I was going to do and that I was effectively standing down as deputy First Minister in the North to contest the election.
Why did you decide to do it?
Because I do passionately believe that Ireland needs leadership at this time. I think that the country has experienced a shameful period of selfishness and greed,which has seen the economy driven into the ground. I can't believe some of the wages that people are being paid, the huge wages, the huge bonuses, the huge pensions, including politicians, when they’re walking away from their jobs. I think it's absolutely disgusting. I want to stand with those people who suffered as a result of the unpatriotic decisions that were taken by speculators, bankers and politicians over recent times. Various people have always inspired me anyway, and I would hope that I have inspired people through my work with others in building the peace process in the North and unifying people, not just in the North but all over the island behind what is clearly seen as a hugely successful peace process. So it's about stepping forward and showing people that you are prepared to come down to their level, to the level of ordinary people who are suffering and finding it hard to put food on the table for their children.
You’ve declared that you’ll do the job for the average industrial wage.
No. The media are running with this business of 'the average industrial wage'… it's actually the average wage, which is less than the average industrial. As deputy First Minister in the North, I earned something like £112,000 a year for the last five years, and it didn't go into my account, it went straight into Sinn Fein's account. I was paid a subsistence of just over £300 a week, and the person who drove me to work in Belfast for the last five years got exactly the same wage as I got. That's why I made it clear that I am prepared to do the job for the average wage and I am prepared to see the vast bulk of the presidential salary go back to the people of Ireland. One of the issues that I have asked the campaign team to explore, if I am honoured by the people of Ireland to be their President, could we bring six unemployed young people off the dole queues and pay them out of that salary? Those are the sort of ideas that we're exploring at the moment.
Photographer Ronald Quinlan had a piece in the Sunday Independent stating that you arrived in a very nice car for the Late Late Show debate last Friday.
I came out of The Late Late Show and the car I came to RTE in was a Volkswagen Passat. I don't think that's a top of the range car! There were two people along with us who were filming – who wanted to film my journey through the battle for the Presidency – and they were driving a better car than I was, but it wasn't my car, it was their car.
Given that your past membership of the IRA was always going to be a contentious issue, why didn’t the party choose someone with a less colourful history – like Mary Lou McDonald?
It wasn't really a matter of why we didn't run anybody else. So many people came to me, including Mary Lou, and made what they believed was a compelling argument that I should be the candidate. So her input in all of this was also part of my consideration.
You claim to have left the IRA in 1974, but I would say that most people do not accept that. Does it bother you that so many people don't believe you?
Well, since it became clear that I was standing in the election, it's obvious that the media would pick on something they think is a soft spot in terms of undermining my campaign. But I’ve been on the ground since I came back from the United States of America. I’ve met tens of thousands of people at the ploughing championships in Kildare, and on the streets of Cork and in Dublin, particularly after the All-Ireland Final. And like the North – I've been Minister of Education in the North and deputy First Minister over the last ten years – you can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people who asked me when I left the IRA. So I don't think it is a big issue for ordinary people. I think it is a big issue for the media and for some politicals who are panicking about the prospect that I could be elected as president of my country.
Are you panicking at the prospect?
No, I never panic. I've been involved in some of the most important negotiations that Ireland has ever seen and after 800 years of conflict and living in a State in the North where we were treated as second class citizens, treated like dirt basically, by the successive unionist administrations of Stormont for 50 years. I would like to think I have been part of all the big moves which brought that conflict to an end. Also, do people think that if I hadn't existed that there would be no conflict in the North? If they think that then they're living in cloud cuckoo land. The reality is that there was a very bitter conflict. I've never denied my past.
Why did you join the IRA?
I joined the IRA because the community that I come from were humiliated on their own streets by the RUC and by the British Army and by their Unionist masters at Stormont. On October the 5th, 1968, my father, who was a deeply religious man, a very reserved man, an ordinary working man – he felt that he had to protest for civil rights and for equality on the streets of Derry, and they were beaten off their own streets by the RUC. When it became clear that the protests were getting bigger and bigger, of course the British army were brought in, and we had the Battle of the Bogside, we had people murdered on the streets by the Royal Anglian regiment before the IRA ever fired a shot. Seamus Cusack was shot dead, his aunt and uncle lived on my street. Desmond Beattie was shot dead by the same regiment. Sammy Devenny was beaten in his own house by the RUC and died a few weeks later, and of course we then had the introduction of internment – innocent people being taken from their own homes and incarcerated without trial. Some were tortured. And later the British army were found guilty at the European Court of Human Rights for that. And we then had Bloody Sunday where 27 people were shot by the Parachute Regiment. 14 of them died. People might be fed-up hearing me making the point, but the people of Dublin burned down the British embassy. We didn't have a British embassy to burn down. So we participated in the IRA and fought in the streets against the British army. I'm not going to apologise to anybody for doing it because I think that, at that particular time, we had no other choice.
Having gone through the peace process, have you forgiveness in your own heart for the British now?
Oh yeah. I can fully understand, and in a number of speeches that I have made... Everywhere I've gone, I've gotten an absolutely phenomenal response. I was in Omagh, Co. Tyrone, last night where 30 people lost their lives in 1998 after the Good Friday Agreement was signed, and there was 500 people in the local theatre and 300 people were turned away. The theme of my speech last night was the need for, if I became president of Ireland, a decade of reconciliation. I think we all need to be reconciled with each other, and we all need to recognise that many different entities were responsible for the conflict and for what happened during the course of the conflict. After I became deputy First Minister in the North, my civil servants came to me and said there was a request from a number of RUC officers who had been badly wounded during the course of the Troubles to meet with me. And some of them thought I wouldn't have met with them, and I said, “I am prepared to meet with them.” They came into my office and they came straight across the room and shook my hand and said that they were delighted to see the Agreement working and that they were very happy that I was in the position that I was in. And there was no recrimination whatsoever. I’m not saying everybody’s like that, but if you look at the journey that has been made by Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson, for example, and also my own journey and the journeys of many others, I listen to some of the things that I hear in this State since it was announced that I was going to be a candidate, and I hear some of the contributions from representatives of Fine Gael, for example…
You’re talking about government chief whip Paul Kehoe, who tweeted that you could afford to take a reduced salary because you were living off the proceeds of the Northen Bank robbery.
Well, I'm going to deal with three issues that were raised, and that was one of them. The art of peacemaking is very, very difficult. The art of reconciling is very, very difficult, but it's a task that has to be undertaken if we are to move forward, to banish into the dustbin of history all of the negativity that there has been for far too long. I have to say I am very proud of the relationship I have with Ian Paisley. In my opinion he was a real peacemaker. I'm also very proud to have been in the same department as Peter Robinson for four years, and in my opinion, he is a real peacemaker. I hear some of the contributions from Fine Gael down here, and I just wonder if they can even begin to understand what the art of peacemaking is all about. Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson have shown themselves to be much more progressive than some of the scribes down here – a small minority – and some of these contributions have been made over the course of the weekend. I mean, blatant lies were told. For example, we had a headline that morning from the Sunday Independent...
Saying that multinationals wouldn’t accept a former terrorist as President of Ireland.
Yeah, that multinationals, if I was elected President, wouldn't invest in Ireland. It just shows the ignorance of Fine Gael, because on the day that my candidature was announced, I was sitting in the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street, talking to senior executives of the New York Stock Exchange. When Ian Paisley and I became First Minister and deputy First Minister… On our first visit to the United States, and on his first day as chief executive of the New York Stock Exchange, a man called Duncan Niederauer welcomed us. We had a very strong business relationship with him, but we also a very strong friendship with him, and as a result the New York Stock Exchange set up new offices in Belfast and are employing 500 people. On the day that the two soldiers were killed in Antrim, Peter Robinson and I were to travel to the United States to meet with HBO. The two soldiers were killed and there was a lot of nervousness as to whether or not HBO would come to Belfast to film Game Of Thrones, which has been a major hit on Sky TV. We delayed our trip for a few days, and went to the US and managed to convince HBO that they should come to Belfast to the Paint Hall – where the Titanic was painted – and film the series. They agreed to come and as a result of that, the first series was made and 700 people were employed at the Paint Hall. And the filming is ongoing on the second series with the same number of people employed. City Group have come to Belfast, 500 new jobs as well. I can walk into any boardroom in the USA, and every single one of those senior presidents or vice presidents or chief executives know that I was previously involved in the IRA, but also know that for the last two decades I have been working flat out, and indeed on occasions risking my life, to bring peace. So I think that that was clearly an own goal by Fine Gael.
You’re hardly surprised that your IRA history would be used against you?
No, I'm not surprised. But then we had Gay Mitchell saying that Martin McGuinness gets his salary from Westminister. More ignorance, because since 1997, since I was first elected to Mid Ulster, the British parliament refused to pay me my salary because I wasn't prepared to swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen of England. And then we had the Paul Kehoe nonsense that I was benefitting from the proceeds of the Northern Bank robbery. I've never even been questioned about the Northern Bank robbery, so quite clearly what we're seeing is on behalf on the candidate, Fine Gael trying to cook up a row to make it more relevant in a campaign against a backdrop of what I suppose for them has been a disappointment from the beginning.
RTE’s Voices From The Grave documentary was based on recordings with former terrorists that are being kept in the archives of Boston College (all interviews done on the understanding that nothing would be released until after the interviewees had died – OT). Is there a possibility that something damaging could come out about you?
I have no idea.
Does it upset you that, by participating in the Boston College recordings, former IRA comrades have essentially been grassing on each other?
What people have to understand is that, during the course of the work to build the peace process, a number of people who didn't agree with the peace process said they weren't prepared to support it, and then set up groups of their own…
[McGuinness’s mobile phone suddenly goes off. His ringtone is a traditional Irish air. Shrugging apologetically, he takes the call and talks for a minute]
…Sorry about that.
What's the music on your phone?
Mna na hEireann. Women of Ireland. Have you heard it before? It's one of the most beautiful tunes you could ever hear. It’s traditional Irish music, but if you want to hear a great version of it in song, listen to Kate Bush singing it in Irish.
Are you a music fan, generally?
Oh yes, I love it. All sorts of music. Very wide ranged from pop music to classical music to Irish traditional music.
How about literature? Are you into books?
Huge fan of Seamus Heaney. I love poetry. I also write the odd poem.
So between you and Michael D, there’s two poets in the running for the Áras...
Yeah, but I wouldn’t even attempt to pitch myself against any other poet. I do it for fun.
Do you write in Irish?
No, in English. Gerry Adams printed one of my poems in one of his books and The Sunday Times sent it to the professors of literature at Cambridge and Oxford. The guy at Cambridge said he didn’t like the one-word constant on the last couple of lines, but the guy in Oxford said it was “perfectly splendid” (laughs).
Can you quote me a line or two?
Well, actually I wrote this in ten minutes. We were delayed, sitting on the runway at Kennedy Airport in New York and whatever way the sun was falling behind the World Trade Center and the skyscrapers, I just thought of a line. It’s a very short poem. Have you ever seen a Manhattan sunset from the window of an Aer lingus jet?
Yeah, I have.
No, this is the poem! (laughs). “Have you ever seen a Manhattan sunset from the window of an Aer Lingus jet? /Gloriously crimson it was/ blackening awesome skyscrapers/ slipping towards Montana/ far away from Bloody Foreland.”
It’s…not bad (shrugs modestly).
What’s your stance on US rendition flights passing through Ireland?
Let me start off by saying this. What happened at the World Trade Center was atrocious. A lot of people that I knew were affected by what happened on the day. Father Michael Judge, chaplain to the New York Fire Department, was a friend of mine, and he lost his life at the World Trade Center. He had been with us in Belfast on quite a number of occasions, and he used to come with an injured New York Police Department detective, Stephen McDonald, who had been shot in a robbery in New York. And Stephen is also a good friend of ours, but Stephen is confined to a wheelchair and very badly incapacitated, so the two of them used to come together. They were huge fans of the peace process and liked to meet with people who they knew were trying to make a difference. So it was absolutely terrible.
Were you aware of Building 7 falling down as well, on 9/11?
Yeah, I knew there was a third building. Never got the same publicity as the Twin Towers.
No it didn’t. It was very odd. It just sort of collapsed although it wasn’t actually hit by anything. What’s your take on all the conspiracy theories around 9/11?
Can’t buy into them at all (shakes head). I’ve a straightforward view that the people who carried out the actions carried them out because of the gulf that exists between the East and the West, and I don’t believe that the American government were involved in it at all. But the story I’m going to tell you, which I think is important, is that as a result of that, George Bush took a decision that he would invade Iraq and Afghanistan. Before they invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, George Bush came to Belfast to Hillsborough Castle and met with all of the parties, and Colin Powell was with him. Jack Straw was also there from the British government. Gerry Adams and I handed George Bush a letter of protest, urging him not to carry out the invasion of Iraq. We went from there on our own business to Downing Street and met with Tony Blair and had a very interesting conversation. There were only four of us in the room: myself and Gerry, Tony Blair and (Downing Street Chief of Staff) Jonathan Powell. It was quite clear that they were going to go ahead and support Bush. And I said, “Tony, listen. It is my view that this will be the biggest mistake that you will ever make in your reign as Prime Minister of your country, and I would urge you not to do it.” I said, “it will be a disaster, it’ll be another Vietnam,” and Jonathan said, “Martin, we will have Iraq sorted out in three months.” And I said, “Jonathan, if you believe that, you’ve learned nathin’ from what happened in the North of Ireland.” So they went ahead and went into Iraq. It was a scandalous decision.
Do you think Blair should be prosecuted for war crimes?
Well, I think that that’s something between the international community and himself. The prospect of that happening I think is absolutely zilch. With the invasion of both Iraq and Afghanistan, we’ve seen tens of thousands of innocent people lose their lives, and I think that’s absolutely terrible.
You don’t drink at all, do you?
I very rarely take a glass of red wine with a meal. I don’t go to bars or anything like because if you go to bars then everyone wants to tell you how to win the struggle. Your head would be fried.
Do you still have serious security concerns?
I don’t have any serious concerns at all. I have no protection whatsoever. I could have a PSNI armoured car and drivers if I wanted them, but I’ve never availed of it.
Outside your time in the IRA, have you ever carried a gun for protection?
Never. I’ve never even applied to get a gun. I live in the Bogside and I walk out of my own house, out past Free Derry Corner and into the city centre, go with my son, go with my grandchildren. I don’t have any concerns. That doesn’t mean to say that there aren’t people out there who would like to take your life. That’s something that I live with, but it’s not going to put me off leading a normal life. I’m not going to live like a prisoner.
Are you a religious man?
I believe that there’s a God. I was born into a Catholic family. My father and mother were both deeply religious. But I’m a very broad-minded Catholic and someone who respects all people’s religions and respects the rights of those people who have no religion whatsoever. Five years ago, I got to know Reverend David Latimer of First Derry Presbyterian Church, and David was in dire straits at the time. His church is a magnificent building, but in a terrible state of disrepair. It was a disaster area, really, and they had to leave it and go to other churches in the city. It sits right on Derry walls. I can see it from the back of my house. He desperately was trying to raise the funds to get the church re-opened, and I assisted in it. It took a couple of million to do it, but we done it and, cut a long story short, just a couple of months ago... I’m probably the first member of Sinn Fein in modern times to have been invited to speak to his congregation on the day that it opened, which I did do, and it was an absolutely fantastic occasion.
What were your thoughts on that Northern Irish farmer who ordered Rihanna off his land the other day?
I thought it was absolutely hilarious (laughs). The amount of publicity that he got as a result of it, albeit all fairly negative publicity, I just thought it was a great story (laughs). I wouldn’t have done it, but every man to himself!
Are you a fan of Rihanna’s music?
I wouldn’t say I’m a big fan, no. I actually think it’s fantastic that young people who have talent can put it to good use and make a life for themselves. I think it’s tremendous. People say to me, “What do you think of Jedward?” They’re two young fellas making a future for themselves. Let them go, let them enjoy themselves.
What is your vision of God?
Well the big question is “how did we all get here?” and why do we live on such a beautiful planet that has been plagued by such terrible things over many millions of years? I do believe that there’s something out there. I don’t claim that the God that I worship is the be-all and end-all of everything. That’s the way we were brought up, to believe that.
Had you been born in India, you’d be a Hindu...
If I had been born on the Shankhill Road, I’d have been a Protestant. If I had have been born in the United States of America, I might have been a Jehova’s Witness. But I was born in Derry, on the Bogside, an overwhelmingly Catholic community. My father was a Catholic, and we went to mass and we went to confession, we said the Rosary every night in our house. I suppose I’ve grown up and I recognise that throughout this world there are many people who believe many things and who am I to say, “You’re all wrong and I’m right”? I wouldn’t be so ignorant as to do that.
On the Late Late Show debate you said that a priest who hears the confession of a sex offender should be able to break the confessional seal and go and report that person to the police. Would you feel the same way if it was terrorist activities that that person confessed to?
Well, I’ll tell you what I believe, right, given all that we’ve heard about the Catholic church and about what has to be accepted as a minority of priests. I have very good friends in the Catholic church who are priests who are really angry and annoyed about how the whole concept of the priesthood has been called into question for a lot of people. I remember many years ago, it must be 30, 35 years ago… big questions, “where do you stand on contraception?”, “where do you stand on divorce?”, and my view was that if people can’t live with each other, why should they not be allowed divorce? This was 35 years ago and at that stage, I mean I’m married 37 years to the same woman, and the discussion around contraception, the question was asked, should Catholics abide by the teachings of the church in terms of contraception? And some of the priest friends that I had in the city at the time, even they had great difficulty with the teachings of the Catholic church on the issue. And I knew for a fact that most young people in the city were availing of contraceptive devices because they didn’t want to have very large families. There was seven children in our house. There was a woman two streets away from us who had 22 children – Mrs McGloughlin. So my view was that the Catholic church was wrong on the issue of contraception. There was no doubt at that stage, and even now the vast majority of Catholics would have a very broad-minded view that you’re not going to go to hell if you use a contraceptive device.
Do you believe in hell?
I don’t think I do, no. My mother came from County Donegal, a small place just outside Buncrana and Inishowen. My grandfather and my grandmother lived there and I used to go over every summer for holidays. Of all the holidays I have ever been on, they are the ones that I loved the most, because we were cutting turf and tossing hay and dipping sheep and watching pigs being born, catching salmon and trout in the river. My grandad, even though he was a Catholic, he had this view that you were born, you lived, and you died, and that was it. And nobody has ever come down to tell me any different.
What’s been the greatest moment of your life?
Well, I suppose there have been many great moments. Like the day I married my wife.
Are you still in love after all this time?
After 37 years, four children, and five grandchildren, absolutely. The day my four children were born… I married a very special person. My wife Bernie could handle all that we’ve been through over the course of almost four decades. I married her just after the introduction of internment, although I had known her before that. It’s been a hard struggle for the two of us and I think that it’s more than a great achievement that we’ve managed to come through it unscatched. The births of my children were also great days, and my grandchildren. But if you’re talking about a political sense, the negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement, the fact that the British Prime Minister was able to say to me, “Martin, I’ve read my history and I know that successive British government were as responsible for what happened here…” – this was in Belfast he said it – “…as anybody else.” That was a big admission by Tony Blair.
The day the Agreement was signed must have been a standout moment.
I remember there was a bit of a delay, we thought that the Agreement had been made on the morning of Good Friday and it ran on through the day. I had two encounters in the corridor that day. I met David Irvine and Billy Hutchinson, and I said to the two of them, “Are you two guys ok with these North/South institutions?” And David said, “Martin, look, we’re grand, we’re ok.” And then I met Martin Mansergh and asked what was the delay, and he said, “Look, the Ulster Unionists are just coming to terms with the realisation that they’re going to be in government with you.” We eventually sat around a table with Senator George Mitchell, and we were all asked if we consented to the Agreement. Some people consented and some people said they would consult with their parties, but it was quite obvious at that stage that we were heading towards an agreement which would see us all go out to the people, to ask the whole of Ireland to endorse the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement and they did, and that was a massive highlight. And then as a result of that, I became Minister of Education, another big event, an incredible experience.
Were you welcomed into the Department of Education?
I was appointed to what I was told was the most Unionist department of all the departments. The headquarters was in a place called Rathgael House in Bangor, the most Unionist part of Northern Ireland. Rathgael means ‘Fort of the Irish’. It was very appropriate that I was going there. And when I arrived that morning, the Monday after I was appointed, the roundabout just before Rathgael was covered in Union Jacks and Ulster flags and Israeli flags and Scottish flags. That was the welcoming committee. But I went into the Department and the Permanent Secretary came out and met me at the door, and I went in and I have to say, the institutions were up and down at that time because of the fairly poor leadership of David Trimble in terms of embracing the Agreement, but I made great friends in that department. Even though people wouldn’t have been natural Sinn Fein voters or even SDLP voters, we still had a common bond that we wanted to do our best for all of our children in education. Probably politically the biggest day of all was the day Ian Paisley and I stepped forward. I remember we were invited, myself and Cyril Ramaphosa and Rothmeyer, they were both the chief negotiators for Mandela and for de Klerk, to meet with opposing forces from Iraq in a forest in Finland, which we did do on two occasions. This was at their request. They said that the only people they wanted to speak to in terms of peace negotiations were the South Africans and the people from the North of Ireland. It also became very clear to me that they were blown away by the sight – because they told me – of Ian Paisley and I walking down the steps of the great hall at Stormont. To get to that point was an incredible experience. I remember going into Downing Street in 2003: after that election the DUP and Sinn Fein became the largest parties and by that stage, the institutions had collapsed in October 2002. Tony Blair was almost in despair. We again sat in this room where we always met him, a small sitting room, and we asked him what his approach was going to be and he said, “Well, we’re going to have to get David Trimble and the Ulster Unionists back into pole position within Unionism.” And I said, “Just hold on a wee minute, Tony…take my view that that is not going to happen, and that for the foreseeable future, Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson and the DUP are going to speak for the vast majority of Unionists. Our strategy is not to get David Trimble back into pole position. Our strategy has to be to get Peter Robinson and Ian Paisley into the institution.” And he looked at me and he said, “But sure, Martin, Ian Paisley will never share power with you,” and I said, “Tony, I think you’re wrong. If we do the right things, if we are smart and if we work together, we can bring about a set of circumstances that will see that happen.” And from that moment on, his whole approach changed. It took just over four years to do it, but it was done.
Does it bother you that yourself and Paisley are known as ‘the chuckle brothers’?
I think it was Danny Kennedy of the Ulster Unionist Party who coined that phrase. It was done to score a political point or to demean us. I think it worked against him and worked very much for Ian Paisley and myself. People like the fact that Ian Paisley and I could sit down together and have a decent, civilised relationship. It was Ian Paisley that said to me on the first occasion that we sat down, “Martin, you know, we can rule ourselves, we don’t need these people coming over from England telling us what to do,” and that was common ground. And Ian Paisley went on to say things that you would never have thought Ian Paisley would ever have said. For example, after the first meeting of the North/South ministerial council in Armagh, when the Taoiseach came up with all his ministers and we brought our ministers, and Ian Paisley and I and Bertie Ahern had to go out to talk to the media. Ian Paisley said, “We need to end the old divisions and the old hatreds and build a better future for our children.” They were remarkable days, absolutely.
If you became president of Ireland and had to meet the Queen of England, could you respect the fact that her sovereignty includes the six counties?
Well, if I am honoured by the people of Ireland to be elected as their president, I would be president of Ireland. I suppose the question then is, “Well, where is Ireland?” I spoke at a meeting in Omagh in Country Tyrone last night to 500 people in the new theatre, 300 people were turned away. Tyrone is as Irish as any other Irish county. Derry, where I come from, is as Irish as any other Irish county. But there are people there in the North who have a different allegiance, and it’s fair enough. If they want to have an allegiance to the Queen of England, let them have that. So there are people in the North who will give their allegiance to Ireland, and to the President of Ireland, and that’s fair enough. We need to be big about these things. We need to be generous, and we need to recognise that Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson have different allegiances to me, but we also have a common bond and our common bond is making the peace process work. So I would meet the Queen.
You referred to certain media commentators as ‘West Brits’ on a radio show recently...
Well, it was an off the cuff remark, but I have to say some of the contributions that we’ve heard over the course of recent times are very disappointing. Peter Robinson and Ian Paisley wouldn’t be in government with me if they didn’t trust my commitment to the peace process. What I find really disappointing is that we have made such progress in the North that now in the context of this Presidential campaign, people down here are… well, a small minority of individuals down here, are much more vitriolic and spiteful, than where the vast majority of people in the North. I just think there’s an art to peacemaking, and some individuals down here haven’t learned it.
Are you an emotional type at all?
Well, it depends to what degree you’re talking about. Everybody has emotions.
Indeed. When was the last time you cried?
I suppose…three years ago. It’ll be three years on the 6th of October. My mother died.
What’s been the worst experience of your life?
The worst experience was Bloody Sunday. I was on the march. I actually think it’s important to make this point, and this is related to the Saville Tribunal. I was asked by the families of those who were killed and injured on Bloody Sunday, would I go to the Saville Tribunal and go as someone who was a representative of the IRA in Derry at that time. I was Minister of Education, but it was a very tricky stage of the peace process, an early stage. I was concerned that if I did that, it would run the risk of destabalising the institutions because... how could Unionists respond to that? I didn’t know how they would respond. So I thought about it very carefully and decided that the issue was such a big issue – I mean what did the IRA do on the day? – that I had no choice but to stand by the people of my own city, so I decided I would go. And I knew before I went that as soon as I made it clear publically that I was a member of the IRA in Derry on Bloody Sunday – actually my statement said that I was second in command, which was true – that I would be blamed for everything that the IRA had done, by political opponents and others who are not supportive of the brand of Irish republicanism that I represent. So I also knew that some of these people, if they got away with it, would try and blame me for the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence as well, but that was something that I decided I would have to live with. Actually what you’re hearing now in the media is the end-working, in my opinion, of that decision. If you read the Saville judgement, he accepted absolutely that the IRA bore no responsibility whatsoever for the events of that day, and he placed full responsibility on the shoulders of the Parachute Regiment. So Bloody Sunday was a terrible, terrible day. 27 people shot within the space of 20 minutes and some of the people who were killed were my friends who grew up beside me. But there have been many other awful days that have affected the Unionist community and the British army.
Have you ever sought counselling?
No. No, never.
You haven’t been traumatised by some of the things you’ve witnessed?
No, I wasn’t. I’ve been deeply hurt by them, and I’ve been annoyed by them, and many of them have been deeply troubling, but I’ve never sought counselling. I’ve always been able to work it out in my own head.
Do you have a motto in life?
Yeah. You have to believe. I’ve fished all my life since I was eight years of age. I never knew how to fly-fish, but I have a friend who is 20 years older than me and he’s like a second father to me. He’s a very accomplished fly fisherman. He said I should take up fly fishing, that it would be good for me and relieve the stress and all the rest of it. I said, “I don’t have time to go to rivers,” and he said, “you don’t need to go to a river, just go to a daisy field.” We went to a football field near the Brandywell. So that’s where I learned how to cast. You might find this hard to believe, but it’s not a fisherman’s tale: the very first time I went to fish for salmon I caught an eight pound salmon on the second cast (laughs). He also gave me a book, Salmon Fishing, written by a former member of the RAF, a man called Hugh Falkus. He was also an accomplished fisherman and he is the bible when it comes to the life cycle of the Atlantic salmon and sea trout, but one line in the book struck me: “When you go to fish for salmon, as you walk to the river, you have to believe that you are going to catch a salmon.” The first salmon I caught as I walked down that field, I believed that, like I would never believe anything, and to my great surprise on my second cast, I caught the salmon. So I apply that also to other things. I had to believe that I could convince Tony Blair to join with us, to bring about a process which would see the DUP come into the institution. I also had to believe that we could get an agreement on Good Friday, and I’ve taken that belief into nearly everything that I have done. I also have another motto. It comes from an old Native American Indian who felt very betrayed by the forked tongue of the white man who came from the East, and it was, “We love quiet. We suffer the noise to play. But when the wind blows in the woods, we fear not.”