IRA could ‘have killed thousands’, says McGuinness

Deputy First Minister says civilians died where IRA made ‘ mistakes’ and were not deliberately targeted

Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness who told the Oxford Union last night that he was “absolutely prepared to say sorry to people whose lives I have affected”. Photograph: Daniel Ming/Al Jazeera

Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness who told the Oxford Union last night that he was “absolutely prepared to say sorry to people whose lives I have affected”. Photograph: Daniel Ming/Al Jazeera

Wed, Nov 6, 2013, 09:44

The IRA could “have killed thousands on the streets of London and in Northern Ireland” during the Troubles, Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has said.

Speaking in Oxford last night, the Sinn Fein figure insisted that civilians died where the IRA made “huge mistakes” in operations that went wrong, but they had not been deliberately targeted.

His declaration came during a meeting of the prestigious Oxford Union, which hosted an al-Jazeera TV “Head to Head” debate hosted by presenter, Mehdi Hasan.

His defence of the IRA’s conduct during 30 years of attacks prompted Mr Hasan to interject: “You’re saying, “Well, we are not al-Qaeda, so give us a break.”

Mr McGuinness was repeatedly pressed about the 1990 killing of Derryman, Patsy Gillespie, who was forced by the IRA to drive a car-bomb into a British army check-point.

The IRA booby-trapped the car to ensure that Mr Gillespie - who had worked as a British Army civilian cook, could not escape without detonating the device. It exploded, killing five soldiers.

However, Mr McGuinness said he disagreed with the condemnation voiced at the time of the attack by the Catholic Bishop of Derry, Dr Edward Daly, who said the IRA had been involved in “the work of Satan”.

“I don’t agree with that view,” he said. Asked how the killing of Mr Gillespie was “anything other than cold-blooded murder”, Mr McGuinness said: “Obviously, people will have their own interpretations of that.”

Denying that he knew who was involved in the killing of Mr Gillespie he said he could not discover the identities now of the killers, saying that that is a matter for the police.

Victor Barker, whose 12-year-old son, James was killed in the Omagh bombing in 1998 by the Real IRA, said the Oxford event had “been a very difficult and poignant evening”.

The people in Northern Ireland and elsewhere who deserved “the most respect”, he said, were those who had been victims, or lost loved ones and yet did “not get involved in the circle of revenge”

“I would have more respect for Martin McGuinness if he completed his democratic journey if he admitted some of the crimes which he has been part of,” Mr Barker declared.

“Patsy Gillespie’s widow is still alive today. She knows exactly what happened and who ordered the death of her husband. Everybody would have more respect if you accepted your position and started telling the truth,” he said, to loud applause from large parts of the audience.

Questioned about the Real IRA’s bombing in Omagh in 1998, Mr McGuinnesssaid he did not know who had been behind it and said the job of finding those who did was “the job of the police”.

He said he had consistently supported calls for an international investigation into the bombing.

“I can’t do their job for them,” he said, adding that he could do not do unless “you want me to set up a team of Republican detectives to try to establish who the individuals were”.

“I am absolutely prepared to say sorry to people whose lives I have affected”, he told the packed debate hosted by al-Jazeera TV at the Oxford Union.

Under questioning, Mr McGuinnness said he had never “defended the killing of innocent people” and that he had said before that it was “absolutely and totally wrong”.

Everyone involved in the Troubles - the IRA, the British Government, Loyalist paramilitaries and the British Army - should be “very regretful” that it lasted so long and cost so many lives.

Responding to one member of the audience who said that the Sinn Fein leader had been “given immunity and high political office” for his crimes, Mr McGuinness said: “I don’t believe that I have been given immunity.”

The Real IRA “absolutely hates” Sinn Fein and the peace process, while dissident Republicans had frequently threatened his life, he told the Oxford Union.

The lack of an agreement to deal with Northern Ireland’s past is “one of the failures” of the peace process, but Unionist politicians are now “using some victims as a political weapon”.

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