Queen's Policy Engagement

Martin McGuinness – saint and sinner

Jonathan Powell, chief government negotiator in Northern Ireland from 1997 to 2007 offers his own personal reflection on the late Martin McGuinness.

Martin McGuinness – saint and sinner

The obituaries of Martin McGuinness were divided on partisan and ideological grounds. For the Daily Telegraph, Jenny McCartney and Norman Tebbitt he was a terrorist and a monster who should rot in hell, and for the Guardian he was a saint and a hero who could stand proud in Irish history. There was the same divided and divisive reaction when Ian Paisley died. In fact what is interesting is the duality: both men helped start the Troubles and both helped to end them. They were saints and sinners at the same time, and it is important to keep both elements in mind when making a fair assessment of their lives.

I made a short film on McGuinness for BBC Newsnight that went out on the evening of the day he died. Watching the archive film material about a youthful McGuinness, I was struck that he was indeed the quintessential hard man of the IRA and yet he also popped up every time peace was discussed. He was there when the British government brought an IRA delegation to Cheyne Walk to meet Willie Whitelaw in 1972. Even more surprisingly he, along with Gerry Kelly, was the one at the end of the secret channel to the IRA when that was re-opened by Michael Oatley in 1991. He sent the message to the Major government, now contested, saying our war is over but we need your help in ending it. He was the chief negotiator on the Republican side when talks opened with John Major’s government after the first ceasefire in 1994 and he was my opposite number from 1997 to 2007 when Tony Blair was Prime Minister.

So was he hard man or peacenik? The answer is both. He clearly commanded the IRA and was responsible for terrible crimes for which many victims find it hard to forgive him even in death. But even while he was engaged in the carnage, he appeared to be looking for a way out.

My best guess, after thinking about it for many years, is that he and Adams came to the conclusion in the mid 80s that, while the IRA could not be defeated by the British security forces, they were not going to drive the Brits out of Northern Ireland against the wishes of the majority of the population by physical violence. By that stage both were well past fighting age and could see that the conflict could go on for ever. There was what the academics call a mutually hurting stalemate. At that stage they started reaching out first to John Hume, then to the Irish government and finally to the British government.

I don’t think at that stage they had a clear idea of what the end point would look like, and if they had they would not have shared it with their comrades. Clearly the Good Friday Agreement would not have been acceptable to the majority of the IRA in 1981. But it was by 1998. As Seamus Mallon, the SDLP leader said, the Good Friday Agreement was Sunningdale for slow learners (on all sides).

I now work on peace negotiations around the world from Colombia to Burma and one thing that strikes me is the way in which a negotiation is often like an escalator. Once you put your foot on it, it carries you inexorably up and it is very hard to get off. I think that was the case in Northern Ireland too. Neither the UUP nor DUP, nor Sinn Fein envisaged the outcome of the negotiations when they started, nor could they have sold the outcome to their supporters at the beginning. But the escalator carried them there.

When I researched ‘Great Hatred Little Room’, my book about the Northern Ireland peace process, the Cabinet Secretary allowed me to read back through the No 10 files from 1997 to 2007. As I waded through the papers, one thing leapt off the page at me above all else and that was the importance of process. If there is a process people have hope there can be a solution, and if there is not, there is a vacuum and that is filled by violence.

Shimon Peres, the former Israeli President had a better way of describing it. He said that in the Middle East we all know what the outcome will be in terms of territory, in terms of refugees and even in terms of Jerusalem but there is no process to get us there. In other words he said, the good news is there is light at the end of the tunnel; the bad news is there is no tunnel.

Martin McGuinness laboured through the peace process, which for him lasted at least sixteen years, with extraordinary patience. In all that time, I was intrigued by the relationship between him and Gerry Adams. After all they had been together longer than most married couples. They were very different personalities and yet they operated as a unit and if one of them came to a meeting by himself he would be unable to agree to anything. Often they would practice a good cop bad cop routine on me, with Gerry being the one beating me up and Martin being the one trying to be pleasant. Adams was clearly the boss, but he couldn’t move without Martin.

I had never seen that sort of shared leadership before. Bertie Ahern, the Irish Taoiseach, believed that McGuinness was there to represent the IRA and ensure that they weren’t sold out. He said he would always keep an eye on him in a negotiation to see what his reactions were. Others believe he was there to ensure that both Belfast and Derry brigades with their different histories and different interests, were represented. I think it was more complicated than that. Adams and McGuinness, who first met in the run up to the trip to Cheyne Walk in 1972 and had been in a personal dialogue for decades about the struggle and about how to make peace, produced a common analysis and a common goal, if not a fully worked out strategy. They needed each other to complete the peace.

Perhaps what McGuinness will be most remembered for however is not just being the man who negotiated peace but also the one who made peace work. According to Ian Paisley Jr, McGuinness and his father first sat down for a proper meeting on the morning of 8 May 2007, the day they took office and agreed they would work together instead of against each other. I remember sitting in their office in wonderment on that day as the two of them crammed on a sofa between Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair competed with each other to tell the funniest joke. The Chuckle Brothers had been born.

People will continue to be divided in their views on Martin McGuinness as on Ian Paisley. But the interesting question is not whether he was a terrorist or whether he was a peacemaker but how he moved from the one to the other. I hope that historians will in due course be able to throw more light on the answer to this question, not least because it matters in trying to find solutions to even more bloody conflicts elsewhere in the world.


Jonathan Powell
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Jonathan Powell is an Honorary Professor in the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast, and was chief British government negotiator on Northern Ireland during 1997-2007.

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