Martin McGuinness insists he left IRA in 1974

 

MARTIN MCGUINNESS said in his soon-to-be vacated Deputy First Minister’s office at Parliament Buildings, Stormont, yesterday evening that he left the IRA in 1974. Under privilege and without fear of prosecution he had told this to Lord Saville’s inquiry into Bloody Sunday.

From midnight last night the Sinn Féin Minister of Education John O’Dowd took the role of acting Deputy First Minister while this morning Mr McGuinness will be canvassing at the National Ploughing Championships in Athy, and in the afternoon handing in his nomination papers.

It’s a blitzkrieg through every county thereafter as he campaigns to succeed fellow northerner Mary McAleese.

But in this first full day of campaigning since he was formally endorsed as candidate on Sunday he was annoyed with the media “fixation” on his IRA past and the fact that many people believe he was in the IRA way beyond 1974. “Let’s go for the gullet,” was how he described being directly asked by me when he left the IRA.

On the subject of “necessary fictions” I asked him would he be open to possible prosecution if he admitted – over and above what he told the Saville inquiry – that he was in the IRA and on its army council beyond 1974.

“If that was true it would leave me open to prosecution but it isn’t true,” he said.

Earlier on BBC Radio Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster programme Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott raised questions about Mr McGuinness’s IRA past, in particular citing the 1990 deaths in Derry of Patsy Gillespie and five British soldiers in the so-called “proxy” or “human bomb” attack.

Shortly afterwards when he was interviewed by Mark Carruthers Mr McGuinness said: “I had absolutely no involvement whatsoever in that. I wasn’t a member of the IRA when that happened. In fact I have never, ever been arrested or questioned about that incident by the RUC.”

But then Mr McGuinness continued, “I am not going to undergo an interrogation from you, Mark, which is strangely absent whenever you interview unionist politicians . . .” While Carruthers politely protested that this was unfair and inaccurate Mr McGuinness added, “Have you ever interrogated a unionist politician about the creation of Ulster Resistance . . . ?” Carruthers said he had raised this issue with unionists when appropriate and would do so again in the future.

It was a tetchy start to the day, but surely Mr McGuinness was not surprised that he would be queried about his IRA past, or that there would be scepticism about his denials? Did not most people believe that he and Gerry Adams could not have persuaded the IRA to cease fire and decommission unless they themselves were senior figures in that paramilitary organisation? “People make a false assumption when they assume that [he was in the IRA after 1974],” he told The Irish Times.

“Over the course of the last 30 years my work has been political; it has been very political in terms of trying to build this political party,” he said.

“People who voted me in have done so because they accept my bona fides about being absolutely true and earnest in the search for peace, and that my efforts have fundamentally changed their lives and the lives of our entire community for the better,” he added.

But his IRA past was an issue that he would face from the likes of opponents Michael D Higgins and Gay Mitchell and in the big set-piece media interviews in the South? “I will deal with that when it comes to that, don’t worry about that,” he said.

“The circumstances that led me to join the IRA were no different than those that led Éamon de Valera, or Michael Collins or Seán Lemass [to join the IRA] in their time, and also led thousands of young men and women throughout the North to do the same in the 1970s and after,” he said.

He continued: “I did defend the IRA during the conflict; I never defended every IRA action. The fact is the IRA carried out some indefensible actions resulting in the deaths of innocent people and republicans have apologised, and rightly so, for that.” But, added Mr McGuinness, some people who suffered at the hands of IRA supported him now, and even offered to engage with his campaign.

Still, it was clear that the focus yesterday on the past rather than the present or future rankled. “Most Irish journalists, if Nelson Mandela was sitting in front of them, would not go down this line of questioning,” he said.

Was he comparing himself to Mr Mandela? “No, but it is the principle of the [journalistic] approach I am talking about.”

While Mr Adams was now TD for Louth and Mr McGuinness had (possibly temporarily) left Stormont he was insistent there was no danger of Sinn Féin “taking the eye off the ball” in relation to maintaining the stability in Northern Ireland.