'McGuinness was involved in IRA probably up until near the end and the disbandment' - Ahern

Documentary to be broadcast Wednesday examines life and legacy of late Sinn Féin politician

The late Martin McGuinness  (centre) with former taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Gerry Adams: In an RTÉ documentary, Mr Ahern praises Mr McGuinness as a negotiator and a politician. Photograph: Frank Miller

The late Martin McGuinness (centre) with former taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Gerry Adams: In an RTÉ documentary, Mr Ahern praises Mr McGuinness as a negotiator and a politician. Photograph: Frank Miller

 

Former taoiseach Bertie Ahern has said he had always considered Martin McGuinness to be at the highest leadership level of the Provisional IRA until close to the time it disarmed in 2005.

The late Mr McGuinness, who was deputy first minister in the Northern Ireland Executive for 10 years until his death in 2017, always denied he remained a member of the IRA after 1974, the year he received his second conviction for paramilitary-related offences.

In a new RTÉ One documentary examining the life and legacy of the Sinn Féin politician, Mr Ahern said: “I always dealt with Martin. Martin effectively was if not the Number One leadership of the IRA, was the person who was listened to by the IRA.” 

Mr Ahern says in the documentary, which is being broadcast on Wednesday night, “My assessment was Martin was involved in the IRA probably up until near the end and the disbandment.

“What exactly constituted a member? I know one thing for certain when I was in negotiations with them, time out of number, both Gerry and Martin went off to meet the IRA and I know back in 1997 when we were getting the ceasefire back, they were dealing directly with the IRA in Dublin when I was negotiating with them.”

Peace process

He said his view was Mr McGuinness was a full member.

In the documentary, Mr Ahern praises Mr McGuinness’s prowess as a negotiator and a politician, his direct style and the role he played in the peace process.

“Martin was very straight. Gerry [Adams] would go around the mulberry bush several hundred times. Martin was far easier to interpret and therefore to do business with.”

The documentary gives a detailed examination of how, over the course of four decades, Mr McGuinness moved from being a teenage IRA leader in his hometown of Derry to deputy first minister, sharing power with the Rev Ian Paisley and the DUP, meeting Queen Elizabeth and standing as a candidate in the Irish presidential elections.  

It features contributions from major figures who came to know him during his political life, including former US president Bill Clinton, former UK prime minister Tony Blair and former US senator George Mitchell.

‘Chief of staff’

Mr Blair said he noticed that throughout the process leading up to the Belfast Agreement, Mr McGuinness “changed his attitude in quite a fundamental way to those with whom he had been at war”.

While Mr McGuinness consistently denied he was a member of the IRA after 1974, a series of contributors say he held very senior leadership positions in the late 1970s and in the 1980s.

According to former IRA member Kieran Conway: “Northern command was created, Martin was its first commander and in 1977/1978 he became chief of staff, a very, very popular appointment.”

Derry writer and commentator Eamon McCann says in the programme: “Martin McGuinness did not leave the IRA in 1974 . . . After all, if you are a member of a secret army it has to be a secret that you are a member of the army.” 

Mr McGuinness died in 2017 from a rare genetic condition.

The documentary quotes his own view on his legacy. “I don’t really care how history assesses me. Historians, many of them come from different historical perspective and I leave it to the judgment of them and the judgment of the people. If you consider the journey that has been made I suppose anybody would be concerned that you would be judged fairly.”

McGuinness airs on RTÉ1 at 9.35pm on Wednesday.