Martin McGuinness’s limited self revelations of the IRA boss and the peace-making politician, will be worth studying for years

Although I may be speaking too soon, it comes as a relief that the traditional Irish decencies are being observed on the death of Martin McGuinness, not only on merit but for the sake of preserving relations between the DUP and Sinn Fein.

It’s too early to speculate how his death will affect the interparty talks.  I doubt if we’ll ever be sure whether quitting the Assembly was fully his own decision, or if  his need to retire from illness presented  Sinn Fein with the opportunity  to improvise a change of tack  from accommodating the DUP to confronting them and raising the stakes for playing the Assembly game.

For a man who led much of his life in the shadows even in recent years, more of the real Martin McGuinness appeared on the surface than might have been expected. He could be menacing and charming at the same time.  I don’t claim to have known him well, but once he  told  me the address of my family’s home in Derry and followed it with a grin. I returned the compliment with somewhat less  impact.

It was always difficult to know how to approach rare interviews with leading paramilitaries.  The audience requires you to challenge them even though you know they’ll stonewall. Drawing them out  can sound like giving them as easy ride and they still stonewall.  Even so, by agreeing to be interviewed in the first place and getting permission to ask for the interview , you knew they want to say something that  could be important in some way, even as revealing propaganda..  The Thatcher government in particular made a different calculation which in my view was self –defeating and wrong  by allowing  red mist to cloud good judgement.

The BBC documentary Real Lives: On the Edge of the Union in 1985 compared and contrasted the DUP politician Gregory Campbell who wasn’t a terrorist but carried a licensed weapon, with the IRA boss Martin McGuiness who concealed his weapon. The programme contributed to the sacking of a BBC director general. By setting the two men in similar domestic settings and revealing  their obvious similarities, the programme was fiercely attacked  on the grounds that while it pointed up the irony of  similar ordinary lives, it was a whitewash for failing  to show  what it couldn’t show, the real life context of McGuinness’s  IRA  operations.

Eamonn Mallie followed his career for 40 years and interviewed him at length.

Ed  Moloney, critical reporter of the course of the IRA  followed up with a  more jaundiced view and a list of further searching questions

Later McGuinness’s, deliberate  unambiguous use of the chilling word  word ” traitors ”  to describe dissident republicans in 2009, was a landmark statement of commitment.

These people are traitors to the island of Ireland, they have betrayed the political desires, hopes and aspirations of all of the people who live on this island. They don’t deserve to be supported by anyone.”

Let me be clear, if I call on the people, our people, to wholeheartedly weigh in behind the police service north and south in the apprehension of these people I have to make it clear that I too have a duty and a responsibility if I know where individuals who are responsible for these attacks are, to do as much as the public are expected to do.

The  splash coverage of  his death in the UK national papers  contrasts with the general lack of interest in the grinding politics of today. Armed rebellion and it’s immediate aftermath win attention and then it fades. Three examples  follow of some of the best pieces of writing on McGuinness.

First from the  now largely retired correspondent of the Independent and previously the Irish Times, David McKittrick, who was perhaps the steadiest and most acute  continuous observer  throughout the Troubles and who counted the  cost in human lives in detail. He recalls McGuinness  the young IRA leader.

    ( In 1971) even with limited manpower and resources in the early IRA, he proved a  major danger to life and property.

His unit was heavily outnumbered and outgunned, as he was later to describe in evidence to the tribunal investigating the deaths of Bloody Sunday.

He spoke, with a trace of regimental pride, of the skills of his gunmen, telling the tribunal: “A number of British soldiers were killed in what were known as single-shot sniping situations. The IRA had a small number of people who were probably more accurate in their sniping than the average British soldier, and a number of British soldiers lost their lives.

In fact the statistics show that his IRA in Londonderry, although facing hundreds of troops, killed 27 soldiers during 1971 and 1972. At the same time its bombing teams meanwhile laid waste to much of the city centre, one observer describing central Londonderry as looking as though it had been bombed from the air.

The IRA was much troubled by informers, he added, and there were many occasions “when people who betrayed republicanism went over to the British, and were executed by the IRA.” The background, he told the tribunal, was “a state of war between the IRA and British military forces.”

Much later however they were, with infinite caution, to steer the republican movement away from violence and into politics, eventually running down the IRA and building Sinn Fein into a highly effective political machine on both sides of the Irish border.

They set about reorganising the IRA for the long haul, adopting a strategy known as the long war. It was partly reorganised into a cell structure in order to tighten internal security and guard against the effects of informers and interrogation. It also widened its range of targets, killing a number of senior business figures and prison staff, and smuggling in powerful new weaponry.

Designated as Sinn Fein’s chief negotiator, he took part in years of negotiation with British intelligence officers, officials and eventually ministers, giving vital cloud cover to Adams’s pragmatic compromises.

And finally he devoted the last ten years of his life seeking to build peace, having evolved from the young lad making acid bombs at the start of the Troubles to the political figure working to bring the conflict to a close.


The late Liam Clarke who with Kathryn Johnson wrote his biography “Martin McGuinness; From Guns to Government” described the initial problems  of contact  but ended  up  describing McGuinness the revolutionary politician  vividly.

For years Martin McGuinness has complained that his views have been censored, yet when we asked to interview him he ignored the first two requests and replied to the third with a solicitor’s letter. He recalled the days of 2001 when the DUP were challenging Sinn Fein’s membership of the first Executive

There was little doubt in the mind of the British that if republicans wished, they could return to violence.

These were the cards that history had dealt McGuinness, and he was not in a hurry to surrender any of them..

Peter Mandelson, who took over as Secretary of State after Mowlam, was an astute observer of human nature. Of McGuinness, he said, ‘If you were in his bad books, he would treat you in a very tough, usually unpleasant, way. If you were in his good books, he was completely charming.’ The two men were not close. Mandelson did not like the habit McGuinness had of jabbing him in the chest at moments of tension, and McGuinness regarded his detailed expositions of the political constraints on British action as little more than excuses for delay. When Mandelson shared his impressions of McGuinness with Gerry Adams, the Sinn Féin President told him, ‘Well, the nice thing about Martin is that he is so human – so emotional, quick to anger, quick to charm, quick to show his humour, always reacting very sharply in a situation. Martin takes everything very seriously, expresses himself very passionately.’ Mandelson continued, ‘In a sense, I know what he was saying. On the other hand, there was an aggression, almost a violence sometimes, in the way he expressed his point of view, and attacked you for your own, which was off-putting and not very constructive.’

One particular occasion when Mandelson and McGuinness crossed swords was after Mandelson temporarily suspended the Assembly and other institutions in February 2000 to avoid triggering Trimble’s resignation: ‘You will look back on this day and realise that you have destroyed what we achieved. This is the worst decision anyone has ever taken – what you have done is of such historical magnitude.’ The Secretary of State felt: ‘It was all calculated to make you feel that you had indeed done something of earth-shattering destructiveness, that you had really wrecked things. It was meant to make you feel utterly awful and unnerved. When you are first on the receiving end of something like that, it does take you aback, it does make you think, and you do of course reflect on it. But it was a speech I got many times subsequently, on many different occasions.’

Mandelson found McGuinness to be an intransigent bully in negotiations; even so, he had to admit that Sinn Féin’s tactics were among the most effective he faced as Secretary of State. While the Provos were constantly chiselling at his position, negotiating and moving from one issue to another, the Ulster Unionists expended all their political capital more or less fruitlessly on the issues of policing and decommissioning.

As McGuinness played hardball with the British in his demand for the full implementation of the Patten report into the future of the RUC, he took every opportunity to drive a wedge between them and the Unionists, squeezing every situation until the pips squeaked. McGuinness would even exploit divisions within the IRA and dissident attacks to extract further concessions with which to bolster the Sinn Féin leadership. As part of his game plan, McGuinness stretched the consensus with the SDLP to its limits, using the spectre of breakdown and violence to frighten the larger party away from a deal with unionism. It was a predatory relationship, aimed at hollowing out their support in order to supplant them.

In the short term, McGuinness would often use Hume’s party to decisively influence the Irish government’s Northern policy and, through Dublin, could often induce Clinton to pressurise the British. If McGuinness could play the sophisticated spin-doctor, he could also do the common touch. An initial flurry of protests at state schools, orchestrated by the DUP, died away when the reality sunk in that there was nothing to be gained from antagonising the Education Minister. The civil servants liked McGuinness. Unlike Minister of Health, Bairbre de Brun, he did not press his staff to learn Irish or waste departmental budgets on bilingual statements. One civil servant said, ‘There was some initial trepidation but he is basically very easy to deal with and not at all temperamental. He has a few clear objectives and he follows a brief intelligently.’ His one controversial proposal was the egalitarian one to abolish selection at the age of 11, which he had failed himself. With the well-honed skill of a politician, he floated the proposal off to an independent commission, covering his back against any fallout.

In conversation he cultivated the diffident, almost academic, image of a shambling grandfather, prone to clumsy, if innocent, faux pas. After his daughter, Grainne, gave birth, he charmed the press outside Hillsborough Castle by announcing, ‘It’s a boy, six foot, three inches – I mean six pounds, three ounces.’ His backwoods style may well have been contrived, like the story he repeated with self-deprecating glee at every leg of his American tour in 2001. As McGuinness took the podium, he would tell the apparently spontaneous yarn of the Chinese woman who had grasped his hand, exclaiming, ‘Are you David Letterman?’ to which McGuinness replied, ‘Well, at home they think I’m Art Garfunkel.’ According to Nic Robertson, the CNN journalist who followed him, ‘It brought the house down every time.’

Malachi O Doherty described his own self -searching  when seeking to square McGuinness’s account.

I had been frustrated by the evasions and the talk of peacemaking when crossing the IRA could still cost a young man his life.

I said: “Martin, if you shot me, would that be a breach of the ceasefire or not?”

“Ach”, he replied. He was disgusted with me.

He had his Press officer write to every editor who employed me then to complain that this was an improper question to put to a public representative.

That is how he wanted to be seen, a democratically elected politician who was in no way answerable in public for the actions of the IRA.

The puzzle was how he could separate those roles in his mind, see them as wholly separate. A few years later we clashed again. He was at the Harbour Commissioners’ Office in Belfast announcing the appointment of Michael Longley to the Ireland chair of poetry.

We saw the familiar blushing smile. Martin read one of his own poems. Longley thanked him for it.

Martin admired the lovely building and recalled that he had only two weeks earlier welcomed Meryl Streep there.

Later he caught my eye and I brought Helen Madden over to introduce her to him. Then I couldn’t resist the quip: “I bet you’re really glad now you didn’t have this place bombed, Martin.”

Again he was furious, and it was, similarly, the fury of exasperation. The problem was not that he was being wrongly accused of being in the IRA; it was that on an occasion like this, that was, to his mind, entirely beside the point.

McGuinness has an air of innocence about him, an almost childlike gladness in his nature, and yet he is the man who led the hard men.

Many of his former comrades are so appalled by the incongruity, the mismatch between the reconciler and the old soldier that they no longer believe he was ever really on their side.

He went further in his efforts to reassure unionists than they did in any effort to placate nationalism and republicanism.


Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London