'Should someone with an IRA past be entitled to run? It would not be a first . . .'


Martin McGuinness sees himself as coming to this election with an IRA past but also as a peacemaker

TEN MINUTES into our interview, Martin McGuinness is beginning to set out how he’s been around a long time, when a shadow falls across the table.

We turn around and a large, hirsute man looms above, shaking a camán and warning, “You’d better not ask any hard questions.”

A smile as bright and wide as a piano keyboard breaks across the face of the bearded one. It is Gerry Adams, and he’s showing off a prize souvenir, a hurley with tell-tale black-and-amber tape.

Both men laugh and McGuinness says: “You are interrupting our flow.”

As it happened, he was addressing a germane question just before Adams appeared: wasn’t he aware before entering the race that awkward questions about his past would emerge?

Of course he was. It is evident, and McGuinness himself confirms this, that he didn’t volunteer himself to Sinn Féin as a presidential candidate but that he was asked and was persuaded to stand. We will never know how reluctant or enthusiastic he was, but what is evident is that once he made up his mind, McGuinness prepared himself fully for the task with all the self-containment and military discipline that has kept him at the forefront of republicanism for four decades. Adams needn’t worry too much about hard questions.

You could ask McGuinness was he the reincarnation of Genghis Khan and he would give you a blow-torch stare or a look of pained indignation and seamlessly move the question away from specifics and individual atrocities to the general and the totality of the struggle.

The way he sees it, McGuinness comes to this election as a person with an IRA past but also as a 61-year-old peacemaker who has been democratically elected for almost 30 years, who has been an architect of the peace process, and who has bridged an extraordinary divide by forging a strong working relationship with those who represented the other side: Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson.

He himself identifies and addresses the primary quandary surrounding his candidature: “The question comes down to, should somebody with an IRA past be entitled to run for the presidency of his country? It would not be the first time that somebody with an IRA past did that, not just for the presidency but for leading government positions, including taoiseach.

“At the end of the day, people have to make up their minds as to whether or not the journey we have all taken has put us into a better place . . . If Martin McGuinness was elected as president of Ireland, could that accelerate the process of national reconciliation?”

The major party in Government obviously doesn’t agree with the last sentiment. Yesterday Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan launched a nasty attack all but describing McGuinness as a terrorist who would alienate foreign investment if elected president.

In a follow-up tweet, Government chief whip Paul Kehoe bludgeoned in with a tweet on McGuinness’s offer to forgo most of his salary. “Why would you need your salary when you have the proceeds of the Northern Bank at your disposal?”

The attacks from such prominent party members have blown open any semblance of acceptance by Fine Gael of the concept of a Sinn Féin president; and any claim that McGuinnness’s good working relationship with Enda Kenny extends from North-South relations into domestic southern politics.

McGuinness responded to Hogan yesterday by claiming his comments were “bizarre”. He also rejected the notion that he would drive away investment, pointing out that the day he was approved by Sinn Féin as its candidate, he was on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on a trade mission where he met many chief executives of many major US corporations. As for Kehoe’s later tweets, McGuinness’s spokesman said: “That is an absolutely outrageous remark for the Government chief whip to make. If Paul Kehoe has any evidence about Martin McGuinness and the Northern Bank, he should go to the Garda Síochána.”

To forward his argument about being a unifier and peacemaker, several themes recur.

There is repetition of the line that the first ceasefire occurred all of 17 years ago, as well as a detailed (and sincere) account of why he came to join the IRA as a teenager. He’s willing to meet the Queen now, though he wasn’t willing only five months ago. There’s also a big emphasis on statesmanship and on how his and Adams’s efforts have given the Northern peace process global recognition.

In that context, Fine Gael’s Gay Mitchell jibed that McGuinness, on his Late Late Showappearance, was a name-dropper. There was some truth in it: Mandela, Clinton, Bush, Obama and Blair all cropped up.

An example: “All over the world, in the round, people see me as someone who was involved in the IRA. President Obama knew that. President Bush knew that. President Clinton knew that. And Nelson Mandela knows that.”

Awkward and uncomfortable questions surround some terrible events: the IRA killing of alleged Derry informer Frank Hegarty in the mid-1980s, and the callous use of another local man, Patsy Gillespie, as a human bomb five years later. Gillespie was strapped with explosives and told to drive to a checkpoint. He and five British soldiers died.

In The Irish Timeslast week, Peter Murtagh wrote that McGuinness had a prima facie case to answer on the Hegarty case amid allegations that he befriended the family in order to entice Frank home to Derry. Murtagh recalled being ushered out of the Hegarty house by two people to a car, where McGuinness told him it was not a good time to interview the family.

“I don’t even recall being sitting in a car outside, but it bears all kinds of sinister connotations which has no relationship with the engagement I had with the Hegarty family,” responds McGuinness.

“The difficulty about this is that I have held my silence generally for all of that period. [My] only reason is out of respect for the Hegarty family. I could say a lot of things that are hurtful and I’m not prepared to say it, about how that situation was handled at that time and their own involvement in it.

“I know that places me at a disadvantage. That’s something I will have to live with. I can say without fear of contradiction that it’s a total misrepresentation.”

He says the only reason he has been associated with the Gillespie case is because of his admission of being in the IRA at a much earlier juncture. “I had no involvement with the IRA [at the time] and knew nothing about the attack.”