About 120 people gathered in the Wellington Park Hotel in South Belfast to hear Martin McGuinness and Mary-Lou McDonald in conversation with Jude Collins. Part of a series of town hall events that Sinn Fein promise to hold each year.
They spoke about highlights from the political careers, the lack of backstabbing in the party given that everyone earns the same wage, and how to convince “dissidents” (a term that Martin McGuinness thinks is misused) to stop their campaign.
One question from the audience asked whether any “middle ranking or even junior members of Sinn Fein” had joined the PSNI. [About 31 minutes into the audio] After a long pause, Martin McGuiness slowly replied, not answering the question directly but referring back to his visit to the home of Ronan Kerr’s mother soon after her son’s murder.
I went down to see Nuala within hours of her son being killed. And it was very obvious from being in that household that many of the family circle were Sinn Fein voters.
And I would go so far as to say that Ronan Kerr voted for Sinn Fein, and joined the police because he wanted to be part of change and wanted to support the peace process.
Later Martin McGuinness went on to say that he would be as outraged if a young protestant policeman was killed in the morning.
It felt like a remarkable and inappropriate statement for a politician to make in a public forum. Others in the audience were taken back by his admission. And while uttered in response to a question that was clearly probing how far Sinn Fein were committed to the outworking of their policing policy, it felt very uncomfortable for the politics and voting record – true or perceived – of a dead man to be discussed.
I asked Martin McGuinness about it afterwards and he said:
It’s clear to me from my own first hand experiences that we are now seeing a situation where young people who are very nationalist-minded and republican-minded, who want to contribute to bring a change within policing and who want to support the peace process, have joined the police in the course of recent times. And that’s why I have made it absolutely clear that people who are prepared to do that – and I also include in that young protestants who have joined the police and do so for the best motivations – that if they are prepared to stand by the political process, the politicians have a duty to stand by them.
But was it fair to politicise Ronan Kerr’s death by speculating on his politics?
I don’t think I was politicising his death. It has never been contested that he was an Irishman, that he was nationalist-minded, that he was republican-minded, that he was a supporter of the GAA. So I don’t think that offends anybody. I actually think people should take encouragement from the fact that there are now young people who are motivated by the best possible ideals, prepared to join the police. And in doing so, continue to support the ongoing development of the process that has brought so much change to our society.
Whether Martin McGuinness is right, I suspect that claiming Ronan Kerr’s vote will be a controversial statement to have made.
Later on in the meeting, Martin McGuinness spoke about the need for political leadership:
We have to continue to show leadership, even if it means we’re risking our own lives. Because we are conceivably dealing with groups out there who wouldn’t think nothing of tomorrow morning coming and taking my life. But that’s okay. If that’s the price I’ve got to pay for peace, I am prepared to take that price. We have to show leadership, no matter how we’re threatened and no matter how what is used to undermine the process that we have built up over the course of the last 15 years.
They panel also covered anecdotes leading up to the Good Friday Agreement and the barriers to unification. Mary-Lou suggested that:
Sovereignty – like virtue – isn’t appreciated until you’ve lost it!
One member of the audience suggested that people in the south didn’t want to be joined with the north. This lead to a short discussion in which Mary Lou agreed that the media in Ireland was biased against Sinn Fein and Martin suggested that the Irish News was biased towards the SDLP, with the Newsletter sometimes running more photographs of him as Deputy First Minster than the Irish News.
Martin said that the negotiations at Hillsborough had been the turning point in his relationship with Peter Robinson.
They also covered the potential of the 2016 centenaries and ended with Martin McGuinness passing up on the opportunity to be trapped in a lift for two hours with political opponent Gregory Campbell and instead choosing Sammy Wilson.
Update – Jude Collins has posted on his blog about his experience last night and his opinion on Martin McGuinness’ comments.