‘Charming’ but ‘slightly terrifying’. Róisín Ingle recalls two encounters with the late politician
about 16 hours ago
Updated: about 3 hours ago
I got a lift from Martin McGuinness once. From Stormont to Derry in his chauffeur driven ministerial car. It was May 2001, just a few weeks out from the UK General Election.
He was Minister of Education and I was interviewing him for The Irish Times. I remember being struck by his close and easy relationship with his driver. They clearly went back a very long way. I sat in the back seat next to Minister McGuinness in the comfortable expanse of his government car.
As many have said reflecting on his death, McGuinness brought up complex emotions in people.
On the one hand I liked him. When talking about his favourite Delia Smith recipe or fly fishing, or how he took his porridge, or that time Jane Fonda called to his house in Derry, he was charming and friendly.
At one point the occasional poet got his driver to stop the car beside a bridge in the Co Derry countryside so we could try to see salmon jumping in the river. “If you weren’t here I would be fishing in my head, with Classic FM on the radio,” he said wistfully.
On the other hand he made me nervous. When I asked him, as I had to, about membership of the IRA or about murder he could be slightly terrifying. He had this piercing stare. He threw it towards me a few times and it put me on edge sitting in a confined space beside this “boy general”, as the British media styled him, turned government Minister.
I interviewed him again in February 2002 in the time leading up to the Bloody Sunday Inquiry when he talked about his early life as a republican leader in Derry: “People forget I was once 21. They think you were 30 years of age and you were sent to some kind of special school for training: it wasn’t like that at all,” he said.
Here’s the piece I wrote about those encounters with Martin McGuinness which was published on Saturday, Feb 9th, 2002.
From “boy general” to Education Minister
For all the smart suits, the chauffeur-driven cars and now the grand offices at Westminster, there has never been a ministerial air about Martin McGuinness. His office at Stormont is cluttered and he prefers not to be interviewed behind his big, important looking desk.
On school visits, Call Me Martin is his unofficial catchphrase. “Yes Minister, I mean,” the female teachers giggle in reply.
These days, few outside education want to talk to him about schools or departmental policy. The Minister’s role during Bloody Sunday – did he fire the first shot or was he just a bystander? – has been the subject of intense discussion and lately his appearances on TV or in the newspapers have centred around those events.
At a meeting of the North/South Minsterial Council in Dublin Castle in 2001, were from left, Sean Farren, Dr Michael Woods, Martin McGuinness and Dr Jim McDaid. Photograph: Frank Miller
He has just watched the second movie about the Bloody Sunday shootings 30 years ago, describing Jimmy McGovern’s film Sunday as “very, very powerful”. During the studio discussion that followed the film, McGuinness – who has admitted to the tribunal that back then he was second in command of the IRA in Derry – was accused of distributing nail bombs to volunteers on the day.
“Nonsense,” he said, “the sources quoted are highly suspect to say the least.”
He will give evidence within months to the tribunal but his assertion that the IRA was not involved in Bloody Sunday is not enough for some of his opponents, who believe McGuinness should widen his statement to include more details of his IRA past.
This suggestion is deflected with the well-rehearsed and familiar arguments of an experienced politician. If you want to ask what he was doing on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday as well as on Bloody Sunday, he says he is entitled to ask about the atrocities committed by the British army and the RUC, now the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
“The question is how we deal with it. If people want to adopt a one-sided approach then I am not letting them away with it.”
He is in favour of some kind of South African-style Truth Commission but for the moment won’t answer questions about the exact nature of his role in 30 years of Troubles, sticking to stock phrases such as “we are all responsible for the situation” or the even more well-worn, “we all have blood on our hands”.
“You run the risk of giving the impression that I am to blame,” he continued. “That I am chiefly responsible for the events of the last 80 years since Ireland was partitioned . . . So if I am going to be held up in the spotlight all of us should be held up – unionists, the British military services, successive British governments. Me talking about what I was doing on Bloody Sunday is a good start . . . when is everyone else going to start?”
Oh yes, it (a united Ireland) will happen . . . the peace process has been the political education of a lifetime for people on this Island. For years people thought the problem was the IRA but the peace process compelled them to sit back and take a look at the real obstacles,”
These kind of remarks are usually accompanied by a blank, thin-lipped, slightly terrifying expression. Not surprisingly, he seems more relaxed talking about educational issues. When he puts forward reasons for scrapping the 11-plus exam or discusses a new funding package for schools, the days when Martin McGuinness’s mother worried about the limited career options for a young IRA man seem a lifetime away.
He emerged as the youthful face of Irish republicanism after the civil rights movement exploded with the battle of the Bogside in 1969, in the place he grew up and where he still lives in Derry.
By 21 he had evolved from a teenager who threw stones at the army during lunch hour to a ruthless IRA volunteer, who is credited with masterminding the bombing campaign that killed, maimed and reduced parts of his home town to rubble.
He didn’t view himself as leader back then, he said. “Sometimes other people place you in certain positions and you get on with it . . . I never saw myself as a leader of anything. It wasn’t just me. It wasn’t as if I came out of nowhere and grabbed the young people of Derry and said ‘hey, let’s do this’.
“People forget I was once 21. They think you were 30 years of age and you were sent to some kind of special school for training: it wasn’t like that at all,” he said.
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Since 1972, a few months after Bloody Sunday, he and Gerry Adams have been engaged in on-off talks with the British government and he was a key figure in the negotiations which led to the signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998.
Martin McGuinness, then minister for education, at a mass rally against sectarian violence organised by the Northern Ireland Committee of ICTU. Photograph: Frank Miller
The Derry Journal once asked him to describe himself. He said he was a product of British injustice. “That is how I felt. The British government politicised me and they educated me.”
So he has something to thank them for?
He laughs. “I never thank them for anything, I will thank them when they leave our country.”
And how confident is he of that development?
“Oh yes, it (a united Ireland) will happen . . . the peace process has been the political education of a lifetime for people on this Island. For years people thought the problem was the IRA but the peace process compelled them to sit back and take a look at the real obstacles,” he said.
There is little spontaneous about McGuinness’s conversation, much of the time it feels like having a chat with a walking Sinn Féin press release. But talking about his wife Bernadette, who he married in 1974, he becomes less automated, more human. She works in a cafe in Derry and their four grown-up children – two boys, two girls – are doing well. (He is anxious to scotch a rumour that one of the girls is a model as reported a few years ago. But she is very attractive? “All my children are very attractive.”)
In the summer he and Bernadette take long walks together, strolling the 14 miles or so to Buncrana from Derry. His mother is from Donegal and that county is almost a second home.
I came home from Mass one day and Jane Fonda was there”
His father, who died in 1973, was a good Catholic, he says. When it came to his son’s republican life McGuinness snr “never criticised but never encouraged”. Though a committed church-goer himself, McGuinness says he is “very broad-minded” and is supportive of Bertie Ahern in relation to the Celia Larkin issue. Family activities constitute his only life outside politics, but a hectic schedule means he doesn’t see his wife and children as much as he would like.
“All republican wives make incredible sacrifices . . . we are both very philosophical about it,” he said.
Other non-political pastimes include fly-fishing, which he hasn’t had much time for lately. While interviewing the Minister on another occasion, he got his driver to stop the car beside a bridge in the Co Derry countryside so we could try to see salmon jumping in the river.
“If you weren’t here I would be fishing in my head, with Classic FM on the radio,” he said in what can only described as a wistful fashion.
To relax, he writes the occasional poem and cooks. Delia Smith’s meatballs are his signature dish, although his children say he uses too much garlic.
He is not a big drinker but has “the odd glass of wine with dinner”. The last time Martin McGuinness was drunk was when he was 17. “I stopped all that in 1972 because I was a republican and things were bad in Derry at the time. I made a decision that I wouldn’t be in a position where I wasn’t in control of what I was doing. And I never think of it at all.”
His life is “normal”, a “humble existence” that begins with a daily commute from Derry to Belfast after a bowl of porridge, honey and a spoonful of bran.
He estimates that about £60,000 of the £72,000 he currently earns is shared by the taxman and the Sinn Féin movement. Northern Ireland’s Minister for Education said he clears around £300 a week.
The “boy general” image leaped upon by the British tabloids in the early 1970s, back when he was a good-looking young man with sandy curls and what journalists were fond of describing as “cold blue eyes “, is an embarrassment to him.
He had this piercing stare. He threw it towards me a few times and it put me on edge
Art Garfunkel comparisons have followed him for years and he was once mistaken for chat-show host David Lettermanwhile at a meeting in the US.
Recalling how his notoriety attracted at least one memorable visitor to his Bogside home, he becomes uncharacteristically bashful.
“I came home from Mass one day and Jane Fonda was there,” he grinned. “She and her husband, a Californian politician who was interested in the North, had arrived at my door and I made them a meal. My wife was amazed but I took those things in my stride . . . Bernadette was pregnant at the time and she sent baby clothes when Fionnuala (his daughter) was born.”
It is surprising that McGuinness even recognised Fonda, his grasp of popular culture is so limited. “I couldn’t tell you the name of one soap character and I only knew the Spice Girls existed two years after they had been around,” he says. The last movie he really enjoyed was Michael Collins.
Those close to him say that with McGuinness, what you see is what you get. “He can be very laid-back but if something isn’t right he can be quite forceful,” said an aide. He is said to be respected and well liked by civil servants in the Department, adept at time management and getting things done.
His only downfall as Minister, one departmental colleague said, is that he often takes too much on and hardly ever refuses an invitation.
“I have put myself heart and soul into this job because I am only too aware that there are people who would love to see me fall flat on my face, and I have no interest in giving them the satisfaction,” he said. “If I am going to do something, I want to do it well.”
Those within the sector consider him a dynamic operator. In his more than two years as Education Minister, he has announced massive funding packages, including £200 million for ailing school buildings, set up a review body for the controversial 11-plus exam, which he himself failed, and is in the process of reviewing of the entire schools curriculum. He is also looking to introduce legislation to ban corporal punishment in those few schools in the North where it is still in practice.
He is a hands-on Minister who seems passionately concerned about creating a level playing field for school children. At a conference of literacy tutors from across the UK, one teacher from England gushed: “I wish we had a Minister for Education like him.”
McGuinness is sanguine about the fact that the prospect of a Sinn Féin Minister for Education might not be quite so welcome in the South. The concerns of some of the Republic’s politicians and the electorate with regard to Sinn Féin’s links to terrorism don’t seem to worry him.
“It may be convenient for people at the time of an election to raise spectres in an attempt to frighten the electorate,” he said. “We have to work our way through that with people, the best example of what we do is the work of our elected representatives”.
He believes genuinely that the only people who do not believe Sinn Féin is dedicated to peace are “rejectionist unionists”.
“People on this island are aware of our contribution to the peace process, they have seen us in government and know we are as good as anybody else. Or, as some have said to me, better than anyone else.”
Then McGuinness smiled his thin-lipped smile, clearly relishing the imminent political challenge for his party and you can’t help thinking back to another challenge, another election campaign, when he sat in a car, rain spitting down from the dark clouds over the Derry Road in Omagh.
It was May last year, just before Sinn Féin improved its showing in the UK election. Soldiers from the nearby British army barracks poked rifles into bushes and carried out spot checks on passing cars. A fair-haired soldier, patrolling the middle of the busy road, stopped the car directly in front of McGuinness’s.
Inside were Sinn Féin Assembly member Pat Doherty and his election team, who were hot on the campaign trail.
A clearly impatient McGuinness glared over in the direction of the soldier, who was deep in conversation with Doherty through the window of the car in front. Pat Doherty, the Sinn Féin vice-president, had mischievously handed the soldier an election leaflet.
Soldier: “What’s your policy?”
Doherty: “Brits out.”
The delay proved too much for Martin McGuinness. Before you could say “Aye, Minister”, a besuited McGuinness hopped out of the car and stood in front of the soldier demanding he stop “this harassment” of his Sinn Féin colleagues.
It was a bizarre spectacle to witness. Northern Ireland’s Minister for Education fingering the jacket of a British army soldier, asking for his name, his rank and the name of his commanding officer.
“Have you nothing better to be doing?” he growled, his Bogside accent sounded suddenly menacing. “Why are you doing this, anyway?” Someone asked the uncomfortable looking squaddie whether he knew the identity of the irate gentleman.
“I know who you are,” the sergeant assured McGuinness politely.
“I just want to get the details of the people in the car and then you can all go on your way.”
The Mid-Ulster MP continued to complain loudly while members of Sinn Féin hovered around. There was a tense moment before the man in the uniform said: “OK, sir. I will just let you all go on.”
“That would make sense wouldn’t it?” said McGuinness savouring the moment.
“Yes,” agreed the soldier. “Yes it would.”
Confrontation over, they piled back into the cars.
“I haven’t done that in years,” grinned McGuinness, mission completed. The boy general may have moved on but it’s still best not to get in the Minister’s way.