David McKittrick: How Martin McGuinness left behind the grim rhetoric of war
‘Powell remembered seeing the two leaders of militant Irish republicanism playing with Tony Blair’s children and trying to ride Nicky Blair’s skateboard through the rose garden’
(From left) First Minister Ian Paisley, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern inside the main hall of Stormont Assembly in Belfast in 2007, following a deal struck between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin in March. Photograph: Niall Carson/Pool/PA
On an October evening in 1986, in Dublin’s Mansion House, Martin McGuinness, then an energetic 36-year-old, faced down republican traditionalists who claimed that dropping abstentionism would lead to an end to the IRA’s campaign.
He said of his opponents: “They tell you that it is an inevitable certainty that the war against British rule will be run down. Shame – shame – shame.”
He told republicans: “We led the most dangerous and committed revolutionary force in Ireland for 65 years. Our position is clear and it will never, never, never change – the war against British rule must continue until freedom is achieved.”
And yet the man who voiced that menacing promise would, when in his 50s in 2002, publicly declare to the world: “My war is over.”
Many of the intervening years were marked by the republican strategy of deploying IRA violence while seeking negotiations. It was a long odyssey for McGuinness and others which saw the gradual rundown of the IRA and the growth of Sinn Féin into a political force on both sides of the Border.
“There was no road to Damascus change,” according to a senior republican source. “People didn’t go to bed without a political strategy and wake up the next morning with one. It took time for the activists to accept it – it took years. We were educating ourselves, it was a learning curve for us.”
He added: “Sinn Féin had to be modernised, the politics had to be brought into the 1990s, it had to be relevant. We sought a strategy which had some prospect of success because it was based on realpolitik rather than simply a list of demands.”
McGuinness himself explained in a research interview that along the way many republicans were concerned that negotiation would not deliver what they wanted.
He said he told them: “We shouldn’t have some notion that the resolution of this would be a benevolent British government eventually owning up to all of the mistakes in the past. People had to face up to the reality that as in any conflict situation throughout the world there would have to be negotiations, that we couldn’t run away from that reality.”
The years that followed saw many deaths as the three-way conflict involving the IRA, loyalists and the security force continued, often at an intense level. But beneath the surface an intricate web of contacts and negotiations was being established, involving the British and Irish governments, John Hume and others.
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Throughout the Troubles the – correct – assumption of everyone was that McGuinness was deeply involved in the continuing IRA campaign. What took years to emerge, however, was that as Sinn Féin’s chief negotiator he was also at the heart of many of the different lines of communication.
In the early days of the clandestine interactions one channel was with Albert Reynolds administration, with McGuinness meeting his representative Martin Mansergh in a Redemptorist monastery in Dundalk and sometimes Dublin. McGuinness later described his many meetings with Mansergh as “very cordial, very civilised, very sensible discussions.”
On one occasion secrecy was almost blown as he was attempting to slip into the Department of Foreign Affairs when he suddenly heard a guide on an open-top tourist bus say through a loudspeaker: “And the chief negotiator for Sinn Féin, Martin McGuinness, is now entering the Department of Foreign Affairs.’ This was all over Stephen’s Green – I couldn’t believe it.”
McGuinness, meanwhile, also established ongoing contacts with a British intelligence officer. He had learned, he said, “that this was a person who could have a message on the desk of the British prime minister within seconds.” Their relationship went on for many months, surviving repeated violent and political crises.
Momentum picked up when Tony Blair, on becoming prime minister in 1997, authorised meetings at Stormont between civil servants and McGuinness and others. Both sides thought hard about precautions: the republicans arrived in a bullet-proof vehicle while security officials considered requiring McGuinness and company to pass through a metal detector.
Quentin Thomas, the lead negotiator on the British side, vetoed this, arguing that the republican delegation would not use violence. He later said wrily that “if Martin McGuinness was to come in and pull out a gun and plug me, I would have had to conclude that our analysis was based on a false premise.”
The Blair era saw years of McGuinness and Adams meeting the prime minister, sometimes in Downing Street, sometimes in Blair’s room at the Commons and occasionally at Chequers, which McGuinness found “a fairly amazing place, absolutely beautiful, with a very relaxed atmosphere.”
In his memoirs, Blair said the two republicans performed with immense skill in their negotiations. Perhaps surprisingly, he added that over time he “came to like them both greatly – probably more than I should have, if truth be told.”
By contrast Blair’s chief-of-staff, Jonathan Powell, described “the slightly threatening bearded face of Adams and the clear, chilling eyes of McGuinness.”
But Powell remembered lighter moments too, writing of glancing out of a Downing Street window to see the two leaders of militant Irish republicanism playing with Blair’s children and trying to ride Nicky Blair’s skateboard through the rose garden. Powell wrote that they had “escaped from the building – years of training, I suppose.” He reacted quickly, saying that, terrified they would be photographed, he “rushed outside to shepherd them back in.”
At one point, according to Powell, McGuinness told him there was no imminent prospect of the IRA decommissioning its weaponry, saying the republican warned him “there was a real threat that someone would give a gun to some impressionable 17-year-old and get them to shoot Adams or him.”
Blair’s aide Alastair Campbell found both republicans very charming in their own way.” He thought they were very clever but also mentioned one “pretty surly” encounter with them and “the occasional hint of menace.”
Campbell gave an interesting portrait of republican negotiating approaches, writing that he found McGuinness more impressive than Adams “who did the big statesman bit and talked in grand historical sweeps.
“But McGuinness just made a point and battered it, and forced you to take it on board.” He found him “driven by a genuine sense of grievance about the way people were forced to live.”
Campbell also recorded in his diary that then taoiseach Bertie Ahern felt that Adams was “almost irrelevant” assessment to the decommissioning argument and asserting that McGuinness was “the key.”
He was also the key to reassuring the anxious republican grassroots that the time for compromises had finally arrived. He recalled: “I was saying to people, this isn’t going to be resolved by a British government standing up some day and saying, ‘We’re going to take all of the British soldiers out of here, they’re going to sail down Belfast Lough and Lough Foyle in steamboats back to England. ’
“It wasn’t going to happen like that. We had to recognise that there would have to be at some stage, whether now or in five years or 10 years or 20 years’ time, political negotiations.”
And so it came about, after decades of conflict, Martin McGuinness came to leave behind the grim rhetoric of war and instead came to pursue his aims through peaceful political activity.
David McKittrick is a former northern editor of The Irish Times and veteran Belfast journalist and author