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‘I worked on vital negotiations that I believe have changed Ireland forever, and for good’ Martin McGuinness

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Martin McGuinness

Martin McGuinness 1950 – 2017

News broke shortly after 7am today that Martin McGuinness, former IRA leader turned peacemaker, had passed away.

The 66-year-old Irish republican died after a short illness in Derry’s Altnagelvin hospital surrounded by his family. He had a rare genetic disease caused by deposits of abnormal protein – amyloid – in tissues and organs.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Martin McGuinness in 2013, weeks after he announced his decision to step down from his role as MP for Mid-Ulster.

At the time I was working for a local newspaper with a circulation of around seven – maybe even eight – thousand. It really served him very little to speak with me, however he made the time because he said he owed a lot to the people of South Derry and East Tyrone who he emphasised made it possible for him to become Deputy First Minister.

He invited me up to his office in Stormont and even though I had a strict 20 minute time slot, he continually pushed it back and made sure all my questions were answered.

He talked at length about his career, the peace process, Ian Paisley and the Queen, and at that time his hope of maintaining the powersharing government with Peter Robinson.

Unsurprisingly he said being central to the peace process negotiations was the highlight of his political life. And he acknowledged the huge significance his role played in making peace possible in the province.

“I was able to engage and work on vital negotiations that I believe have changed for the better the history of the north of Ireland and the island of Ireland forever and for good.”

Here is the interview in full (published in the Mid Ulster Mail on February 5, 2013).

 By Patricia Devlin

IT is unlikely there will ever be another MP who will enjoy a political career as colourful as that of Martin McGuinness’.

Elected in Mid-Ulster three years after the IRA ceasefire, and a year before the Good Friday Agreement, he has been at the helm of the Northern Ireland peace process for over 15 years.

He has negotiated with British Prime Ministers, gone into government with his most bitter enemy, and shook the hand of the Royal Monarch once considered a prime target for the paramilitary organisation he was Chief of Staff for.

On January 2nd this year, he signed off a letter to Chancellor George Osborne that signalled the end of an era for Mid-Ulster, and his career as MP.

“One of the most interesting elections I have ever fought was the very first election that I stood in, in Mid-Ulster. I have never forgotten it, and I never will,” he told the Mail.

“I remember travelling around every town land and trying to get to every single door, up very long lanes and canvassing to very late at night.

“Quite a percentage thought that the seat wasn’t winnable because it had been tried before, and because there had been narrow losses in the past, in other occasions there were very substantial losses because of the divided vote.

“And I had a real engagement with the people of the constituency, I told them, that I believe there was a change in political situation, that the IRA ceasefire in 1994 had changed the ball game completely, that I also believed there would be a change of government in London, that there would be a new government led by Tony Blair and Mo Mowlam.

“That in my view because we had done work with the Labour party that would represent a real opportunity to get a peace agreement and to the forefront of my mind was to be very, very conscious that all of the people of Mid-Ulster, no matter what their political persuasion or religious beliefs, had suffered from the conflict.

“And I was making a pledge to them that I was determined to bring that conflict to an end and so the people came out in huge numbers and I, against all the odds, won the seat by 1800 votes,” he said.

To Mid-Ulster and beyond

Taking the seat from the DUP’s Willie McCrea was seen as a huge victory for nationalists and republicans in the constituency, so much so that Mr McGuinness’’ election as seen as a catalyst for Sinn Fein sowing it’s roots across the province.

“It was clear to me from speaking to the people of Mid-Ulster that they were very tuned in.

“They were very political and they were very willing to seize the opportunity to make their contribution to the peace process, albeit it being a peace process in it’s very early stages.

“And I think that had a very dramatic impact on the peace process, it certainly had a dramatic impact on constituencies like West Tyrone where Pat Dorrity later emerged as MP, Fermanagh and South Tyrone where Michelle Gildernew emerged as the MP and Newry and Armagh where Conor Murphy emerged as the MP.

“I give credit to the people of Mid-Ulster for having accomplished that and by voting for me, then made it possible for people in other constituencies to recognise that voting for Sinn Fein could bring change, not just in terms of recognising the constituency but in terms of bringing peace which I believed at that time was a passionate objective of mine, but I also believed that it was passionate desire of the people of Mid-Ulster.”

Highlights

The Deputy First Minister says he is in no doubt at what the highlight of his time in Mid-Ulster has been.

“It has to be the success of the peace process,” he said.

“The peace process is considered as the most successful peace process in the world today and because I was elected by the people of Mid-Ulster as the MP, in 1997, within a month of that I led a Sinn Fein delegation to South Africa with other parties, Peter Robinson led the DUP delegation, David Trimble led the Ulster Unionists and Mark Durkan led the SDLP, where we met with Nelson Mandela and learned many important lessons about peace negotiations.

“I was then obviously entrusted by the party to be the chief negotiator in the Good Friday negotiations and obviously it was because the people of Mid-Ulster put me in such a prominent political position that I was able to engage and work on vital negotiations that I believe have changed for the better the history of the north of Ireland and the island of Ireland forever and for good.”

Ian Paisley

The challenges? The building of those personal, political relationships that have dominated the headlines since the powersharing agreement in 2007.

“Of course the first meeting between Ian Paisley was historically of huge importance, whenever it was certain that he and I were going to be First and Deputy First Minister.

“He said a very significant thing, which gave me an insight into Ian Paisley, he said ‘you know Martin, we can rule ourselves, we don’t need these people coming over from England, telling us what to do,’ and I immediately said to myself, ‘well that’s common ground that you and I can stand on’.

“So for a year I had a very good working relationship with Ian Paisley, albeit he was coming to the end of his time as leader of the DUP and First Minister, and of course people then described us as the ‘Chuckle Brothers’, christened that by a member of the Ulster Unionist party who thought it would demean us, in fact people liked it.”

The Queen

One of the most defining moments of those personal relationships happened in June 2012, just weeks after Martin McGuinness outlined his intention to step down from his MP role.

He says even at the height of his powersharing role with Ian Paisley, shaking the hand of Queen Elizabeth never entered his mind.

“Back in those days I never contemplated even taking a decision on shaking Queen Elizabeth’s hand, but when I did that, I took a very conscious decision to do it as an act of friendship to those who had an allegiance to her In the north of Ireland.

“I think that recognising that things are constantly changing and showing unionists what a United Ireland, or a reunified Ireland would look like I think it is important that we continue to make gestures that make people feel comfortable that moving forward in a shared way, particularly trying to develop an all island economy, is making economic sense for us both north and south.”

The future

Although standing down from Mid-Ulster as an MP, the Deputy First Minister says he will not be standing down from the constituency.

“Some people had that false impression,” he says. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

“I will be as proud and honoured to continue on as a humble MLA for Mid-Ulster and as Deputy First Minister because I am very committed to the constituency and very committed to the people of South Derry and East Tyrone who have supported me through thick and thin over the course of the last 15 years.

“I have a great affinity with the people of South Derry and East Tyrone and I am very conscious that I would not be Deputy First Minister or even as many people describe it, joint First Minister, on the basis of equality with Peter Robinson, had it not been for the support I received from Mid-Ulster.”

The young Tyrone woman set to become Deputy First Minister

 

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Patricia Devlin

SHE’S Sinn Fein’s new leader in the north.

But outside of Michelle O’Neill’s Stormont roles, little is known about the young Tyrone woman who has stepped into the shoes of republican leader Martin McGuinness.

Born in 1977 to Kathleen and Brendan Doris, Michelle was brought up in the staunchly republican village of Clonoe in East Tyrone.

A former pupil of St Patrick’s Academy, Dungannon, she first became involved in republican activism in her teens.

It was her father Brendan, a former IRA prisoner who spent time in Crumlin Road and Long Kesh jails, who introduced his daughter to politics.

His election to Dungannon Council in 1989 saw Michelle take a behind-the-scenes role helping her father with local constituency work

It was in 1998, following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, that the future health minister began working full-time for Sinn Fein.

Initially she took on the role of political advisor to MP and Mid Ulster MLA Francie Molloy. 

But before long was also taking on her own constituency work surrounding social and welfare issues, setting herself out in the party as an intelligent go-getter who could succeed on her own.

In 2005 she won her father’s seat on Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council after his decision to step down after 16 years.

The former civil rights activist was said to have been extremely proud of his daughter, by then a married mother-of-two, following in his footsteps.

He also told how she reminded him of his own mother Kathleen, a fierce civil rights champion who had travelled the length and breadth of Ireland to protest and attend squats to highlight housing need.

Brendan – known as Basil to friends – passed away in 2006, a year before Michelle was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

In 2010, still juggling her MLA and council positions, she made history by becoming Dungannon’s first ever female Mayor.

Hailed by her Sinn Fein colleagues as a leading political light to both women and the youth, she was fast being seen as the ‘new’ face of a party often bogged down by some of its members IRA past.

In 2011 the mother-of-two’s rise continued and she was handed the reins of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) from party colleague Michelle Gildernew.

This would be her most challenging position yet, involving the management of a diverse and vast ranging portfolio which stretched from fisheries, to forestry to food, and beyond.

It also saw her become the first Executive minister ever to be tasked with decentralising hundreds of civil service jobs outside of Belfast.

The following year she announced that DARD would move to the former Shackleton Britsh Army barracks in Ballykelly, Co Derry.

After the announcement, it came to light that Strabane had actually been chosen as a more suitable location by an internal DARD assessment, a decision that O’Neill then overruled.

In February 2013, it was also revealed that the decision had been questioned by then Finance Minister Sammy Wilson.

Her ability to manage such a demanding portfolio of work under pressure undoubtedly put her in the frame for the top health spot in Stormont’s new power-sharing Executive last year.

Before even stepping into that role in May 2016 she was well aware of the urgent matters that lay ahead in one of the Executive’s toughest roles.

That included mounting hospital waiting lists, funding shortfalls and reform.

In October, the health minister launched a 10 year plan to transform the health service, saying it would improve a system that was at “breaking point”.

Opposition politicians questioned the lack of details in the plan, which was not costed.

But it set out a range of priorities, including a new model of care involving a team of professionals based around GP surgeries.

O’Neill is well liked within the party, and her warmth has shone through to the public even during the most challenging of times in both ministerial roles.

During the last few weeks her competent and well spoken representation of Sinn Fein’s stance in the Cash for Ash scandal has been both admired and respected, even by those in Sinn Fein backing former IRA man Conor Murphy for the top spot.

Her likeability would be a welcome asset to Sinn Fein in what is set to be one of the province’s toughest ever elections.

Like Martin McGuinness, who cited family as being one of the pull factors in his decision to step down from front-line politics, she has not not allowed her demanding political life take away from her family one.

She has commuted daily from rural Tyrone throughout her time in Stormont.

And as DARD minister she also chose to base herself at least one day a week out of offices at Cookstown’s Loughry College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise, close to her Coalisland home.

That was no doubt a decision taken so she could be close to her children, son Ryan and daughter Saoirse.

When asked in a 2011 interview what type of united Ireland she wanted, O’Neill replied: “one where they (my children) are treated as equals and they feel equal in everything that they do … where we know that the people that are looking after us have got your best interests at heart.”

Ends