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Martin McGuinness: IRA commander and English cricket fan

Peter Hain, Labour secretary of state for the North during devolution, recalls a ‘big’ man

It was summer 2005, early into my role as secretary of state for Northern Ireland, when Martin McGuinness came into my Stormont Castle office, peering round at a television screen in the corner with Sky News on.

Incredibly for a hardline Irish republican – and quite unlike his close leadership colleague Gerry Adams accompanying him – he was interested in the Ashes series between England and Australia.

It turned out he was also a big fan of the English cricket team, able to recite match statistics and comment expertly on each of their batsmen or bowlers. England’s Ashes victory especially enthralled him, and we marvelled at Welsh fast bowler Simon Jones’s then novel “reverse swing” technique.

Adams was rather disdainful about anything sporting except Gaelic football, but McGuinness, like me was also a keen soccer fan. He would report on Derry City’s progress and, like I did, watched big Premiership or European matches on television if he had the time and we might discuss them the next day at a meeting.

Well read and meticulously prepared, he was courteous and straightforward. Of a similar political generation to me, schooled in the radical turmoil of the late 1960s, where I turned protester activist to stop apartheid sports tours, he joined in the ruthless and brutal armed campaign of the IRA.

He was easy to get on with, informal with a good sense of humour and would invariably end telephone conversations or leave meetings with a "God bless". Wiry, polite and always asking after family, McGuinness made the two-hour journey back home to his wife in Derry at the end of every day's work in Belfast.

With Adams he had travelled a long and hazardous journey from IRA commander to principal political strategist for a democratic peace settlement.

Trust

It was a notoriously difficult task, keeping their republican hinterland on board, given the long history of splits in the IRA, some viciously violent. With Adams he was haunted by the memory of Michael Collins, the IRA leader assassinated in 1922 following partition, and would frankly volunteer that.

My task from 2005 was to work with them to get the IRA finally to end its war and Sinn Féin to sign up to support policing and the rule of law – all objectives unthinkable to anyone who knew the bitter terrain of Irish politics and history, but which was achieved by the end of my period in the job in 2007.

McGuinness, with Adams, was a highly professional and tough negotiator, in meetings occasionally playing “soft cop” to Adams’s “hard cop”.

Once, after my then political director, Jonathan Phillips, and I had had a good meeting with them, Adams raised a local constituency issue. I replied: "Don't worry about it Gerry. I'll ask Jonathan to look at this personally, I know you trust Jonathan."

McGuinness looked me in the eye and said: “Peter, we don’t trust any of you. Don’t think for a minute that we trust any of you.” It was not said in an unfriendly way. He was just playing “soft cop”!

Two months into the job, on July 7th, 2005, bombs went off in central London on the Underground and in a bus, planted by Al Qaeda-aligned jihadists, killing 52 people and injuring over 700.

After a hairy drive with flashing lights on my armoured Jag as we mounted pavements and went the wrong way up streets to get out of gridlocked London, I flew to Belfast for a planned meeting with Adams and McGuinness.

We found ourselves watching pictures of the carnage on Sky News, both of them shaking their heads in horror. The irony of such condemnation and genuine sorrow from two leaders of an organisation which had itself staged bombings in London, seemed lost on them.

Tactics

Despite our friendly relations, neither of these two Sinn Féin leaders were averse to the occasional rough tactic. When I was insisting in late 2006 that they would have to fully support the policing and justice system in order to strike the deal they keenly wanted with Ian Paisley, they both complained to Tony Blair about me in terms which implied the prime minister should have no confidence in my continuing role as secretary of state.

Although I was not too concerned about this, my officials were momentarily worried in case I might find myself circumvented by No 10 as my predecessors had sometimes been. But Tony and his chief of staff Jonathan Powell saw this for the ploy it was – one occasion at least when Adams and McGuinness were ignored.

Around the same time, at the end of an especially tense meeting in the conference room at Hillsborough Castle, the two asked to see me on my own. We found ourselves squeezing into a small box room and they aggressively insisted that my pressure upon them risked sabotaging the whole process and they would ensure my role as secretary of state was terminated by refusing to deal with me. Although the incident was physically threatening, I politely and calmly stood my ground and they departed without the usual friendly "God bless".

I did not take this personally because I knew very well that their mission to win over their republican grass roots from a lifelong hostility to policing and the rule of law was proving horrendously tough. Had they deliberately planned to intimidate me or was it simply a reaction to the internal tension in the republican movement? I stood my ground and, after a sticky few weeks, our negotiating relationship resumed on the same professionally cordial basis – nothing of that kind ever occurring again.

McGuinness was a strong leader with sufficient republican grass roots credibility for important gestures of historic healing such as meeting the queen.

Was I surprised that he got on so well with Ian Paisley? Politically yes of course: who could ever have expected the former IRA commander and fiery fundamentalist unionist to become the “chuckle brothers”?

But personally not at all. Both were warm family men, equally traditional in their good manners and personal courtesies, both with a great sense of humour, each secure in their own skins.

They were also big men in that, when the decisive moment arrived, they were able to rise above their very embittered pasts and display real leadership to negotiate the 2007 deal that cemented self-government and peace.

During the historic ceremony at Stormont on “Devolution Day” May 8th, 2007, McGuinness and Paisley joyously taking office together, I introduced my parents, South African-born veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle, to McGuinness. “You must meet my mother,” he insisted, proudly bringing her over.

Although he dedicated his life to the Irish republican cause, family came first.

Both a hard and a soft man to the end.

Labour Lord Peter Hain was secretary of state for Northern Ireland from 2005 to 2007. His memoir Outside In was published by Biteback in 2012

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