20 MAY 2000, Page 13


Martin McGuinness talks to Boris Johnson about his years in the IRA and his hopes for the future

WHAT a place, I think to myself, as I arrive at Stormont. You drive up past the enormous lawns, and the great bronze stat- ue of Carson, the Unionist leader, waving defiance, and everywhere you look there are signs of the British imperium: the vast ghostly pediment fringed with marble pal- mettes, the ceilings painted eggshell blue, and terracotta and silver; the lion, the uni- corn, and honi soft qui mai y pense; the red despatch boxes; the Speaker's Chair, the dedications to those who died for king and country. But if you keep going down the marble corridor, and up about three flights of stairs, you will come to something rather odd. 'Crinniu ar siul bain usaid as an doras eile', barks the notice on the door, in what one takes to be a Gaelic demand for privacy.

Behind it sits the blond-curled and sweatered form of a man who has spent his entire adult life engaged, as he confirms, in a programme of terror, whose objective has been to destroy British power in Northern Ireland. He has almost succeeded in chop- ping the Royal Ulster Constabulary; he has brought about the release of hundreds of terrorist prisoners; he is on this very morn- ing conducting a war of words over whether the Unionists have the right to insist on the Union flag flying from this building where, if and when the executive returns, he will once again serve as education minister; and he has done it without renouncing violence, or even causing a single weapon to be hand- ed over.

Some see Martin McGuinness as a cheru- bic grandfather and fly-fishing fanatic, a man of religious conviction who rose to the leadership of Sinn Fein/IRA through his manifest integrity, and who has just per- suaded them to make the huge concession of offering their weapons for inspection. To others he is the capo di tutti capi, the godfa- ther of the IRA, a pale-eyed killer. In the words of the IRA historian Kevin Toolis, no other living person is a greater threat to the British state'.

He welcomes me with great friendliness, and his charm perhaps partly explains the chronic weakness of the British govern- ment in dealing with him. On the wall is a poem about the death of Mairead Farrell, and a child's pencilled scrawl in praise of Sinn Fein.

What's it like being dwarfed by these emblems of British rule? How does it feel to come to work every day under the salute of Carson, to be a member of the British gov- ernment? 'No, I'm not actually — uctually — I don't swear an oath of allegiance to anyone other than the people who elected me.' This is still part of the UK, isn't it? `Well, the British — the Bratash — tell us it is, but we want to change that.' Come on, Martin: are the salaries of your officials paid for by London or by Dublin? 'Obviously the salaries are paid for by the executive and by the considerable subsidy that comes from the British government.' And might you not have a car and a driver, paid for by us, the British taxpayers? 'No "might" about it. I will get one. I didn't want a BMW. I didn't want a Mercedes. I just wanted a car that would be adequate and would not be over the top or anything like that.'

What was the best bit about your eight weeks in government, before Mr Mandelson closed down the assembly? 'I announced the largest school-building programme ever in the North of Ireland, £72 million for build- ing new schools.' And I bet it was a pleasure to spend British money, eh? I ask the man who drew the dole while trying to smash British rule. 'Yeah, ha ha ha,' he laughs.

It is amazing. The butcher's boy from the Bogside is campaigning against the 11-plus, which he failed himself. He's tough on EU integration. 'We're anti a common Euro- pean army, that's what we're anti,' he says, and chuckles at the thought of a Sinn Fein-Tory agreement. He's in and out of Downing Street; he's penetrated the highest levels of the British establishment; he's bombed his way to power. Don't you feel a sense of triumph, I ask him. 'Triumph? Why? You have to understand that we are Irish Republicans. What we want to bring about fundamentally is an end to British rule in the North and the establishment of a 32- county republic.'

Martin McGuinness's mother was from Donegal. His father worked in a foundry. The second eldest boy in a family of six chil- dren, he had his first experience of sectarian prejudice when he tried to get a job with a local garage; when it emerged that he had been to a local Catholic school, the interview ended. He was at the battle of the Bogside in 1969. In 1971, as 'officer' commanding the Deny Brigade of the IRA, he set about blowing the heart out of his own city. Of Londonderry's 150 shops, only 20 were left standing by the time he and his comrades had finished.

Then, on 20 January 1972, there was Bloody Sunday. According to an intelligence source codenamed Infliction, McGuinness fired the first shot, from a tommy gun in the Rossville flats, which prompted the Paras to return fire. 'That has since been repudiated by British soldier after British soldier who has given evidence to the tribunal.' But you were there? 'I was on the march, yeah, like thousands of others.' But you did no shoot- ing on that day? 'That's all nonsense.' Actually, Sean O'Callaghan says that Infliction is wrong, and that McGuinness is telling the truth. Huh, scoffs McGuinness at the idea of support from O'Callaghan, a senior IRA man in the republic who became an informer, and saved many lives. If Sean says it's the truth, it must be a lie, he says. `What a remarkable person to be quoting to me. He's got himself in an awful predica- ment. I am sure it must be painful for any- one born in the island of Ireland, even in a place like Kerry, to be effectively domiciled in a place like England.' This sounds like gangster talk. Why should Sean be afraid? "I mean if he walked down the main street in Tralee, I wouldn't give tuppence for his ty to get from one end to the other.' Sean O'Callaghan says he had dozens of meetings with you to plan terrorist operations. 'I used to have meetings with him? I think I met him once or twice in Sinn Fein HO 111 Dublin, but, I mean, Sean's the past.' After Bloody Sunday, the British state in Northern Ireland was under siege. In 1972, 500 people were killed, including 150 mem: ben of the security forces. In a panic, Wall,e Whitelaw flew the Provos to Paul Channon s house in Cheyne Walk. I wonder whether that was when McGuinness first sensed the irresolution of the British state? 'At that stage I was 21 years of age and never 111 a million years did I expect that I would be part of a delegation to meet with, effectivelY, British ministers in London. It was a totallY unreal experience for me.' McGuinness only spoke once, clashing with Whitelaw about Bloody Sunday. The talks produced nothing. The bombing and the killing went on. I try to explain why, as a child, I canoe to loathe the IRA and why it seems so Inc° strous that terror should be rewarded. 'But if you were to apply that logic fairly and honestly, you would have to admit that the British security forces have used terroristic methods in the last 30 years.' Oh come off it, I say, and he reverts, as usual, to Bloody Sunday. 'I come from a city where 14 people were killed by the British army, and many others were wounded. Now outside of those deaths in that city alone, dozens of people were killed by the British army.' But how can you say that those heat-of-the-moment shootings were morally commensurate with what your organisation did to thousands of innocent civilians, in Ulster, and in Warring- ton, Manchester, Birmingham? 'I believe that the people of Deny believe the oppo- site of what you believe, and that is a huge problem for you.' He suggests that I have a sentimental pride in the British army, and repeats his experience in 1969, when the army started to shoot his friends. 'You have to imagine the impact that has on an 18- year-old kid from the Bogside.' When I last met McGuinness five years ago it was in his flyblown HQ, at Cable Street in Londonderry. I asked him if he had ever been a member of the IRA, and he denied it, so I put the question again. I have never denied that I was a party to the resistance against the British govern- Tent in the North during the last 30 years. I ye always been very open about that.' So You'd stick by what you said in January 1973, in the Special Criminal Court in Dublin, after you had been found close to a car filled with 2501b of explosives and 5,000 rounds of ammunition? I read it out: 'I am a member of the Deny brigade of Oglaigh na hEireann and am very, very proud of it. We fought against the killers of my people. Many of my comrades were arrested, tor- tured or killed. Some of them were shot, while unarmed, by the British army. We firmly and honestly believed we were doing our duty as Irishmen.' There is a long pause. McGuinness grunts and says, 'I am not ashamed of anything I have done in the past.' Did you ever use violence? 'Everyone uses violence. British soldiers use violence.' Were you responsible for anyone's death? 'I think we're all responsible for people's death.' By firing a bullet from a gun? 'Pais- ley has fired verbal bullets which have caused people to fire guns.' Do you have the blood of anyone on your hands? 'We all do, we all do. We're all responsible. If you're asking me, for example, in the course of the resistance to the British military in the siege of Deny, did I throw a stone that hit a sol- dier in the head and took blood from him, or did I throw a petrol bomb at a member of the RUC, or did I ever fire a shot that killed a soldier, you know, what's the point? What's the point of it?'

The point, I suppose, is to find out whether you're still a killer, or whether it's all behind you? 'I don't think David Trimble would be meeting with me if he didn't think we were for real,' he says, and nor would Blair or Clinton. But you did return to violence after the 'ceasefire'. I remember the Dock- lands bomb. 'Well, that was an IRA bomb; it wasn't a Sinn Fein bomb.' Sean O'Callaghan says you must have known about it. 'What credibility does someone have who has been out of Ireland for 15 years?'

So is the war over? 'That question has been raised by the rejectionist Unionists.' Look: your organisation has a bad record of blowing people up. Is the war over? He starts another answer, about how you have to judge people as you find them, so I cut him off. Is the war over, yes or no? 'The answer is that I don't believe the IRA are ever going to say the war is over because the Unionists make that demand.'

Martin McGuinness will not allow him- self to be portrayed as the loser; why should he? And yet I come away better understanding why successive British gov- ernments have decided that, in spite of his past, he is the man they must deal with, and who, with Adams, holds the key to peace. In the long struggle of wills, he won, and the British government connived in its own defeat. The best hope now and of course it is morally bankrupt, but not wholly despicable — is that the 'peace process' should grind on, the executive return, and Martin and his kind lose their instinct for terror, and discover the delights of spending taxpayers' money on schools, and riding in Rovers paid for by the state he would destroy.