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Peter Robinson: My problem with Martin McGuinness

‘It’s hard to sit in the Assembly chamber across from those who were ultimately responsible for killing my friend’

By David Gordon

Peter Robinson has spoken of how his attitude to Martin McGuinness is still coloured by the 1971 IRA murder of a close pal.

The DUP First Minister also commented on his improved “professional” relationship with the Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister, describing him as “someone you can work with”.

Mr Robinson's remarks were made in a wide-ranging Belfast Telegraph interview, which also covered the impact of cuts on the Northern Ireland economy and unresolved issues from the scandal that surrounded his wife.

He also reiterated his intention to remain as First Minister and contest next year's Assembly election.

Mr Robinson has spoken many times before about how the murder of his friend Harry Beggs led him to get involved in politics. Mr Beggs was killed at the age of 23 in an IRA bomb attack on electricity board offices in Belfast in August 1971.

The First Minister recalled the murder again in the context of his working relationship with Mr McGuinness, a former senior IRA man. His comments will once more highlight to many people the extraordinary and improbable nature of the power-sharing|administration at Stormont.

Asked if he liked the Deputy First Minister, Mr Robinson said: “I suppose the factor that makes me slightly different from a|number of other people is that I came into politics because the IRA killed my friend.

“And I found it very difficult to sit in the Assembly chamber,|looking across the chamber without that coming into my mind — that the people I'm having to deal with are people who have been responsible for either taking part or supporting the murder of family and friends.

“Now, that never leaves me.”

He continued about Mr McGuinness: “He is someone you can work with. On a number of occasions he has been tested in issues of whether he is good to the agreements that he has reached.

“In terms of being able to have a professional business relationship, it's easy to do that because as long as you can understand that somebody, when they've indicated that's what they're signed up to and they'll do it, and you know they're going to — it makes it a lot easier for you to be able to sell those agreements because you know you are not going to get stabbed in the back by somebody reneging on an agreement that they've reached.”

This time last year relations soured publicly between the First and Deputy First Ministers. During one spat, Mr McGuinness suggested that Mr Robinson had spent “too long in Disneyland” while on holiday in Florida.

A central cause of the friction was the lack of a deal on the devolution of policing and justice powers. The Hillsborough Castle Agreement in February this year paved the way for these powers to be transferred to Stormont.

Mr Robinson also told the Belfast Telegraph: “I think the big issues that generated a lot of that heat and friction have been removed, because we have reached agreements.”

The First Minister has been at pains to make clear he has no plans to quit his post, following the shock loss of his East Belfast MP seat in the General Election in May.

He underlined that stance again in his interview with the Belfast Telegraph, saying he intends to contest the Assembly election next May.

“I'll certainly be putting myself forward for selection and that's the way I'm moving forward,” he added.

The brutal murder of a school friend

Harry Beggs was just 23 and engaged to be married when he was killed in an IRA bomb attack on the Northern Ireland Electricity Board headquarters in 1971.

A Protestant from Ravenswood Park in the Braniel area of east Belfast, he was just about to leave the building where he worked on the Malone Road when the 15lbs bomb went off.

He and his 21-year-old fiancee, a social worker, were said by friends to be “very much in love” and had picked out the house in which they planned to live.

Known as a huge football fan, Mr Beggs had been a school friend of Peter Robinson, who was spurred to enter politics as a result, becoming a founder member of the DUP.

An inquest heard Mr Beggs had been close to the device when it exploded. One colleague who had been talking to him as they went out said the place was like a “battlefield”. A second 15lbs device failed to ignite.

The caretaker who discovered Mr Beggs’s body said “lots of people” were trapped under a collapsed staircase.

The coroner said changes to the evacuation procedure had not contributed to Mr Beggs’ death.

A total of 35 other people, most of them secretaries and typists, one of whom was pregnant, were also injured in the August 25 bombing. They also included 20-year-old Ann Owens who would die just over six months later in an IRA bomb in the Abercorn bar in Belfast city centre.

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