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Depraved hearts, history and hope: the IRA ceasefire, 20 years on

Peter Sheridan, once the highest ranking Catholic police officer in the North, looks back at a long and troubled road and how the IRA tried to kill him three times

Martin McGuinness. “I could never see how it was right, even in a war situation, to slip out of your bed at night to go and put a bomb under somebody else’s car,” says Peter Sheridan. Photograph: Bruno Vincent/Getty Images
Queen Elizabeth shakes hands with Peter Sheridan from Co-operation Ireland, as Prince Philip meets Martin McGuinness, then Northern Ireland deputy first minister, at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast in 2012. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/GettyImages
Martin McGuinness attends the unveiling by Queen Elizabeth of a portrait of herself, in London last November. Photograph: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images
Peter Sheridan: “I think he grew to understand that he was more successful in the last 20 years of his life than in the previous 20 years.” Photograph: Trevor McBride

Northern Ireland is a complicated place, Peter Sheridan says. He liked Martin McGuinness and they became friends. Over the years they discussed, rather obliquely, the nature of good and evil. The IRA ceasefire of July 20th, 1997, allowed that curious relationship to develop.

And it is more than curious because on at least three occasions, Sheridan is absolutely certain, McGuinness tried to have him murdered by the IRA.

Sheridan and the late McGuinness were two Derry commanders, one of the police, the other of the IRA. Their career paths, so to speak, took different trajectories but there was a convergence in the end.

That did not happen until after the final IRA ceasefire that took place this month 20 years ago. That cessation revived faded hope and set in train events that resulted in the Belfast Agreement, Sinn Féin supporting policing and justice, and a power-sharing administration that worked for the guts of 10 years until its collapse at the start of this year.

In more recent years, the two former commanders occasionally appeared speaking on the same platform, McGuinness as Sinn Féin deputy first minister, Sheridan as chief executive of Co-operation Ireland, an organisation which promotes all-island peace-building.

“I used to say that I spent longer in Martin McGuinness’s house than he did,” says Sheridan, who was a chief superintendent in Derry.

It was a line he occasionally used as an ice-breaker, to lighten up a perhaps tense situation or audience. The point he was making was that during the Troubles McGuinness frequently was on the run, away from his wife Bernie and four children, and Sheridan was out to nail him. He never did.

First attempt

The first time Martin McGuinness almost took Sheridan’s life was in March 1987. Sheridan was a uniform sergeant called to the scene of the IRA killing of 61-year-old Leslie Jarvis, who was shot several times while sitting in his car outside Magee College in Derry. Jarvis was deemed a “legitimate target” because he taught leatherwork at Magilligan prison in Co Derry. Eyewitnesses noted how casually the killers had walked away.

“I looked in the car and I could clearly see he was dead. I could see his briefcase in the back seat. Then the detectives, Austin Wilson and John Bennison, took over. They asked to borrow my torch. I remember them bending down to study the tax disc on the car as I walked away. Then the car exploded.”

Both officers were killed instantly. Sheridan was lucky; he sustained injuries to his side that required a hospital operation and resulted in a perforated eardrum. He still has ear problems.

After killing Jarvis the IRA unit had substituted his brief case with one containing a bomb. What was additionally cold-hearted about the killings was that, as an IRA member told writers the late Liam Clarke and his wife Kathy Johnston,McGuinness was standing in a house opposite observing the operation, satisfied in his terms that it was clinical and successful.

The two other occasions were in the 1990s. In the first incident gardaí found evidence on a man they stopped in Co Donegal about a plan to place a bomb under Sheridan’s car while he was at Mass. It had all the details – about his wife Michelle, his young boy and girl, the time and place he regularly attended Mass.

The family had to move home for several months that time, as they did again during 1996-1997 when Sheridan was warned the IRA planned an attack at his house.

Reflecting on the fact that the IRA was prepared to kill him at his place of worship and in his home Sheridan takes a little digression to ponder on what some victims mean when they say they want justice: “Is justice for me the guy who was carrying the information? Or is justice the guy who is making the bomb, or the guy who is going to plant the bomb or who took the house over, or the guy who hijacked the car?

“Or the guy who was doing the clear-up afterwards? Or the guy who authorised it? Or the guy who was sitting at Mass opposite me on Sunday taking down details instead of saying his prayers? When people talk about victims and justice, what do they mean? Do they mean the guy who pulled the trigger or the 20 other people who were involved?”

Nell McCafferty and a soup

We are in 57-year-old Sheridan’s Co-operation Ireland office off the Sandy Row in south Belfast. The brief is to chat about the 20th anniversary of the final IRA ceasefire, which Sheridan is happy to do but he likes to tell stories to illustrate a point, and these stories somehow keep coming back to Martin McGuinness.

Next up is the parable of Nell McCafferty and the soup.

Sheridan was in Dublin in 2004 when he spotted McCafferty’s autobiography, Nell, in a shop in Grafton Street. He bought a copy. He rang her and told her he refused to read it unless she signed it. “I’ll be in the Bogside visiting my mother on Saturday and if you’re big enough you can come over and I’ll sign it,” said McCafferty.

This was a time of the permanent IRA cessation, of course, but Sinn Féin still hadn’t endorsed the PSNI and therefore Sheridan was persona non grata in the area – and that’s not to consider the threat from local dissidents.

“On the Saturday I told Michelle I was going over to the Bogside to get Nell to sign the book, that I’d just be a few minutes. My wife said, ‘Are you mad?’”

“Nell met me at the door, fag in one hand, hair out to here. ‘Come on in and see my mother, she’s had a stroke’, said Nell. She sat me on a commode on the side of bed. There was a bell push which she had broken, so she got me a screwdriver and asked: ‘Can you fix that effing thing?’”

“I had the car parked at the door and was supposed to be out in two minutes. ‘He’s a top cop, Mammy’, Nell told her mother.” Mrs McCafferty in turn told Sheridan about her grandfather, “the good Sgt Duffy, an RIC [Royal Irish Constabulary] officer”.

He was in the house for three hours. Before leaving McCafferty insisted he have a bowl of soup which she presented on a tray with a doily, and a French roll beside the bowl. “Things are looking up in your world, I said. And Nell said, ‘Do you know who made it? Peggy McGuinness.’ So, I took out my police business card and wrote: ‘Peggy, wonderful soup.’”

As it happened he and the then PSNI chief constable Sir Hugh Orde were summoned to Downing Street very shortly afterwards for a first meeting with Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Gerry Kelly with Tony Blair and his chief of staff Jonathan Powell attempting to persuade Sinn Féin to support the PSNI.

It was a combative enough affair, according to Sheridan: “There was no shaking hands or anything like that at the start. Gerry did say something like, ‘You are welcome.’ And I said to him pointing at Blair: ‘You’d think it was your house; Downing Street belongs to that boy over there.’”

They eventually got down to two hours of “robust” talks. At the end as people were leaving the cabinet office it was just him and McGuinness in the room. “A lot of things were going on in my head. I was conscious that my closest friend’s father was murdered by the IRA when she was 12 years of age. I remembered all the coffins [of police officers] I walked behind. Martin was last out and I shook hands with him but I kept a grip of his hand. I said to him: ‘Your mother makes great soup.’ And he looks at me and says: ‘How do you know my mother makes great soup?’ ‘I had a bowl of it last Saturday. Make sure you come back to the next meeting and I will tell you about it then.’

“Of course Martin found out from Peggy what happened. He told her: ‘Me and Gerry Adams are negotiating with the Peelers, not you and Nell McCafferty’s mother.’”

 

Catholic high-ranking officer

Sheridan joined the Royal Ulster Constabulary cadets as a 16-year-old in 1976 at the height of the Troubles and at a time when 26-year-old McGuinness already was a seasoned IRA leader in Derry.

Sheridan had applied unsuccessfully to the London Metropolitan Police. He had also applied to the Garda Síochána. “I am still waiting for an answer.” His parents were worried about his joining the RUC but his grandmother, Annie, who lived with the family, in her own distinctive way, sorted everybody out. “If he is born to be shot he will never be drowned,” she counselled.

He rose to the rank of assistant chief constable and was in line to be chief constable of the force*. But the timing was not just right for him and in 2008 after 32 years he quit the PSNI. He had a distinguished career, just as, in his terms, McGuinness had, rising to be overall chief of the IRA and later to deputy first minister. Sheridan graduated from the FBI academy in 1999 and also holds an honours degree in applied sciences and a masters in criminology from Cambridge University.

Sheridan is a relaxed and easy man to chat to but there is no doubting he has a fixed moral code. His relationship with McGuinness was not a lovey-dovey one. “Yes, I was pretty clear-thinking. I have always thought to have such indifference to human life you have to have a depraved heart. I can’t rationalise it. It does not matter if it is here or in Syria,” he says.

“To change things you do have to engage with people on the terms of your values in the hope that their values come to meet yours, or they change, or they reignite the values that they had when they began or when they were younger.”

Sheridan says some of the assessment of McGuinness has been either Bill Clinton’s hagiographic verdict on him as a peacemaker or Gregory Campbell’s dismissive rejection of him. Somewhere between the two is probably the fairest judgment, Sheridan reckons.

The RUC were never able to get McGuinness on a serious “beyond probability” charge in Northern Ireland despite all the police visits to his Bogside house and other investigations. “We did not convict Martin McGuinness in this life. It is unfair therefore morally and ethically to convict him in the next life. That is somebody else’s job.”

Sheridan also acknowledges that having been brought up relatively comfortably near Enniskillen in rural Co Fermanagh, that he enjoyed different life experiences to McGuinness. “I did not know him when he grew up in poverty in the Bogside. He elected to go the route of violence, to right those wrongs as he saw it. I could never see how it was right, even in a war situation, to slip out of your bed at night to go and put a bomb under somebody else’s car, another human being’s car, and go back to bed again.”

Over the years Sheridan says they had careful talks on these big issues: “I still think he was wrong and I would have had that discussion with him. John Hume did not do it. There were other choices, there were other ways.

“I did get to know him in the last 20 years of his life. I got to know him as a person; [we talked] about the journeys we had made. I think he grew to understand that he was more successful in the last 20 years of his life than in the previous 20 years. I often wonder if he had to do it all again what he would say to himself.”

Milestone moments

As chief executive of Co-operation Ireland, Sheridan was involved in some milestone moments, and again Martin McGuinness was a pivotal and supportive figure.

And while it involved risks on McGuinness’s part he nonetheless participated with a full heart in his historic handshake meeting with Queen Elizabeth at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast in 2012. When President Michael D Higgins was hosted by the queen at Windsor Castle in 2014 again McGuinness turned up for the dinner in his white tie and tails. As Sheridan confirms, he also helped facilitate Gerry Adams’s first meeting in Galway in 2015 with Prince Charles.

These were important moments that assisted in the process towards greater reconciliation on the island and between the islands. But the last such initiative went badly.

That was in November last year when McGuinness travelled to London for another Co-operation Ireland event, the unveiling of a portrait of Queen Elizabeth by the Northern Ireland artist Colin Davidson and attended by the queen. At the time it was viewed by many republicans as one grand gesture too many because these acts of generosity were viewed as not being reciprocated by Arlene Foster and the DUP. It was the start of the slide towards McGuinness walking away from the Northern Executive.

McGuinness gave Sheridan some gyp about that engagement. “I met him next day in Stormont. He gave off to me about it because he got a lot of grief from his own people,” Sheridan recalls.

Sheridan told him that other leaders from the North and the Republic had also attended the event and that if McGuinness wasn’t in attendance what would people have said. Still, he understands that thereafter, between the political pressures and his illness, McGuinness “began to feel it was getting away from him”.

The IRA ended its 1994 cessation on *February 9th, 1996, with the Canary Wharf bombing that killed two civilians. In the following 17 months it waged a limited campaign during which it killed eight people; three civilians including the London victims, two RUC officers, two British soldiers and garda Jerry McCabe in Limerick. No one was killed by the IRA in Derry during that period.

The arrival of Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern as the new British and Irish leaders in 1997, together with London dropping its demand for IRA decommissioning before Sinn Féin could enter multiparty talks, created the conditions for the second ceasefire on July 20th that year.

Present and future

And progress, often slow, frequently staggered, continued to be made since then. But politics is back at a sour stage after all the convulsions of the past eight or nine months. The conditions are there for government but the two main parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin, can’t agree to govern.

“I worry that the only certainty is uncertainty,” says Sheridan. He says what is needed are new party manifestos: “But the only thing you will write in the manifesto is what you are going to do to protect the other’s rights, culture and traditions. To the DUP what will you do to protect the culture and rights of Catholics; to Sinn Féin what are you going to do to protect the cultural traditions of Protestants including the Orange Order? And then we will see how serious they are about reconciliation.”

Sheridan also has a concern about Brexit and how that unknown will affect community relations. He recently showed the European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, around the Border.

“I said to Barnier: ‘Do you see the Border there?’ And he said no. ‘That’s the idea,’ I said. ‘We want to keep it like that.’”

Sheridan provided Barnier with a snappy back-to-the-future version of the dangers of a hard Border, and how dissident republicans would see it as an opportunity to be seized. He said to him: “If you think it’s just a question of putting up customs posts then you will have made a mistake. If there are shots fired at customs posts then police will be required to protect customs officers. And if shots are fired at the police then the army might be required to protect police officers. Then if they shoot at the army you will need to build watchtowers and permanent checkpoints and close Border roads.” Sheridan reckons Barnier got the picture.

Some 20 years on from a time of great hope it all sounds deflating. “I am not without hope, far from it, but it is hard work,” says Sheridan.

Sheridan found it interesting how after Trevor McBride took the photographs for this article he (Sheridan) was stopped in Portrush by a senior DUP politician who candidly said to him in the course of their conversation: “We miss Martin McGuinness.”

Sheridan says that he and McGuinness never shared family barbecues together but there was a real bond, notwithstanding that McGuinness could have planted him in an early grave. When he sought his assistance, either in his policing days or when wearing his Co-operation Ireland hat, McGuinness always delivered, regardless of the political and personal risks. That bowl of Peggy McGuinness’s soup, Sheridan says, helped in their subsequent joint enterprises.

“I do think we miss his skills, his ability with people, his ability to get on with people and his ability to stretch people just far enough that we made progress each time. People have asked me did I like Martin. I think people who met him found it hard not to like him.”

*This article was edited on July 16th: It previously stated that Peter Sheridan was in line to be the first Catholic chief constable of the police on Northern Ireland. Sir Jamie Flanagan, a Catholic, was RUC chief constable from 1973-1976. The 1994 IRA ceasefire ended on February 9th 1996.