“I’m a patient man” said Martin McGuinness in a last interview as he defended his strategy of ” making the institutions work”. But Unionists have Rubicons to cross too

So what’s the legacy?  His contribution to underlying peace not war was essential, certainly.   In the welter of well- rehearsed comment  yesterday  we can be thankful that there was no suggestion of regression, rather the opposite from the likes of Gerry Kelly.   But in politics?  To adapt Ian Paisley jnr’s tribute “It’s not how you start your life that’s important, it’s how you finish.” While this is arguable – surely the whole life matters? –  Martin McGuinness’s life finished with the Assembly back in crisis. How did he explain it?

Yesterday the Belfast Telegraph carried a Sinn Fein video of an intriguing reflective post- resignation interview.  In it MacGuinness directly addressed the charge said to come from the grass roots,that he had been too accommodating to the DUP. Without specifically defending the withdrawal which would have meant raking over the coals, he laid out  broad conditions for  a resumption.

Even though some people might have been impatient with me in terms of decisions I came to, I thought it was very important to maintain the institutions. But just as importantly to try to convince the British government and the unionists that they needed a sea change in their attitude,,..

All of us in political life have a duty to stand up for people who feel they are discriminated against whether they are Irish language activists. LGBT.. It won’t work because of the nature of our institutions unless we are able to forge agreements and that means crossing Rubicons as we have crossed……

I do believe that many people in grass roots unionism.. are likely to see that all out best interests are not served by a hard Brexit. Any Brexit is a bad Brexit…. The British government have to live up to their responsibilities..

I do accept there were many people who were agitated that I didn’t move quicker. But I’m a patient man. I’ve been around negotiations for a very long time.  I thought I had a responsibility to everybody and I was trying to do my best to make the process work.

Here was the voice of a strategist and persuader with the confidence and authority to go further than mechanically repeat a party position. Like any strategist he wasn’t going to develop his strategy in public, nor presumably did he feel it was his place any longer to  do so.

While he felt the need to  deal with the charge of   slow movement on his watch not once but twice,  he left no clue as to whether Sinn Fein  should exercise similar patience inside or outside the Assembly. However we might take from his words that patience is best exercised in a return to the institutions which he stresses he wanted to make work – provided unionists “crossed a Rubicon” and made “ a step change.” These terms as stated are clearly negotiable. In the interview he made no mention of the position of Arlene Foster. We are left to make of that what we will.

At the time of writing she had not decided whether to attend the funeral. No comment needed. The one outcome of this funeral week is surely an extension of the talks deadline.  Perhaps we will learn more in the special sitting of the Assembly.

Later. There was no breakthrough moment or notable re-dedication of effort.   . The session was confined to formal speeches followed by signing the book of condolences in the Great Hall.

Peter Robinson’s article on the Belfast Telegraph is of great interest about a relationship  that was “robust and enduring than most friendships and certainly closer, more complicated and formidable than many”. Robinson admits that ” sadly, too often, events would knock us off course but together we consistently picked ourselves up and returned to our common goal” adding:

“In life, we play the hand we are dealt and not all our choices are good ones. ( What were your bad ones, Peter?)

Whether, or not, you believe in the credo that politicians should never accentuate their errors by verbalising them I am certain most will agree that worthy actions are more convincing that the spoken word in demonstrating change..”

No actually.The spoken  word  is essential for those  on the receiving end of inadequate delivery. Robinson’s  problem was that, whether  from calculation  following the  suppressed trauma of the  defenestration of  Paisley, or through his own  temperament  which in its way was as disciplined as McGuinness’s,  he was too cautious about claiming credit for  steeping gingerly outside the tent.   But his conclusion has to be right.

Yet the real decision for all of us was whether we wanted hostilities to continue or to end. Even an unconditional end to violence, welcome though that would have been, would not have resolved our community’s historic divisions – only a shared stake in the future and working with a collective purpose toward a common goal can do that.

Martin’s authority and influence in reaching agreement and in selling it to the republican faithful will be greatly missed.

Is the Robinson/ McGuinness era looking rosy already? If a relationship  between two Troubles veterans that was “closer, more enduring and robust than most friendships” had  continued in office  or had been repeated anew, would the Assembly collapse have been averted? Can it now be differently renewed between leaders of  conspicuously less authority?

Gerry Adams’ tribute  in the Guardian sets up a  straw man.

Reading and watching some of the media reporting of his life and death, one could be forgiven for believing that Martin, at some undefined point in his life, had a road to Damascus conversion and abandoned his republican principles, his former comrades in the IRA and joined the political establishment….To suggest this is to miss the truth of his leadership and the essence of his humanity. There was not a bad Martin McGuinness or a good Martin McGuinness. Martin was a committed republican who believed that the British government’s involvement in Ireland and the partition of our island were at the root of our divisions.

We must have been seeing different media reporting.  I saw no suggestion that he ” abandoned republican  principles.” The  piece is all exultant republicanism, about Sinn Fein on the rise and the case for a united Ireland. He makes no specific mention of the Assembly. While McGuinness would not have  dissented from a word Adams  has written, a difference of emphasis  is noticeable.

  Martin’s leadership and vision helped turn Sinn Féin into the largest political party on the island of Ireland. Our responsibility, now that he has gone, is to build on that legacy. To continue the work that he helped pioneer. That means building a new Ireland – a united Ireland – that embraces all its citizens on the basis of equality and respect.

The Daily Mail reports that Bill Clinton and Tony Blair will attend tomorrow’s funeral  but “not Theresa May”. Indeed. It’ll be quite a  crush with an overspill no doubt. St Columba’s Long Tower is quite small.


Sinn Féin are opposed to extending the deadline on talks aimed at forming a new Northern Ireland Executive, the party’s leader, Gerry Adams, has said.

Parties have until Monday 27 March to reach a deal, or voters will face the prospect of going back to the polls for a second snap election within months.

Mr Adams was speaking at a Sinn Féin meeting in Newry on Wednesday evening.

“There cannot be continuous negotiation and re-negotiation of agreements already made,” he said.

“So Sinn Féin is opposed to any extension of Monday’s deadline.

“It is possible for agreement to be reached in the coming days.


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