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From IRA commander to political reconciler - the changing faces of Martin McGuinness

McGuinness sought to move away from old IRA image, says Malachi O'Doherty

One would have strained to see in the face of Martin McGuinness last night the features of the Derry hard man and street fighter who led the Provisional IRA, first in Derry and later as northern commander and then chief of staff.

There are few people anywhere who have made such a transition as he has.

Some may have been tempted to think that the edge had gone out of him, that he enjoyed his political career too much to shut it down on a principle. But a man who had directed hundreds, perhaps thousands of IRA operations, was well able to pull Stormont down too, even when clearly depleted by poor health.

When the first Executive was formed in 1998, unionists saw McGuinness as the voice of dangerous republicanism. They viewed Gerry Adams then as the slick political operator who had sought fame abroad for his peacemaking and they saw McGuinness as the one with the tighter link to the hard men.

They also understood from security force briefings that both were on the IRA army council at the time.

Some believed that an understanding had been made with Sinn Fein that they would not appoint an IRA leader to the Executive. They had read it wrong and there were gasps in the chamber when Adams announced that McGuinness would be the Minister of Education.

The horror extended into the school system where a visiting minister might be received with cold formality.

Some were aghast to hear him regaling pupils with stories about being an IRA man on the run.

But slowly voices emerged from the Protestant and unionist community saying that McGuinness was a genial man and a good minister.

It was not what was expected of him.

The speculation of many critics of Sinn Fein at that time, including myself, was that Sinn Fein would not wholly commit to the Assembly but would pull it down, and clear the way for a stronger case for joint authority or a united Ireland by demonstrating the untenability of power sharing.

If that really was the secret plan, it was a long time maturing - and Martin McGuinness became the personification of republican amenability.

The biggest surprise was his relationship with Rev Ian Paisley.

The two men became friends, though they had been the sternest of enemies for decades, each embodying for the other the most hardline and intransigent part of the character of the other community.

When you look at those photographs of the men together, it is clear that this was no act. The smiles are as candid as a child's.

Ian Paisley was the one to pay a price for that, being axed by a party that was embarrassed by the obvious conviviality of the 'Chuckle Brothers'.

But McGuinness was genuinely attached to Paisley.

A reporter who covered one of their joint trips to the United States said that when the Press gathered round Paisley, McGuinness was protective, moved to guard Paisley when as a republican he might have been expected to enjoy the old unionist's discomfort.

For years people asked themselves, is this man for real? Is he still the scheming militarist and a danger to us all, or has he changed, and he persuaded us that he had changed.

Once, in the early days, when he met the Press shortly after the IRA murder of Charlie Bennett in Belfast, and stood with Mo Mowlam to reaffirm his commitment to the Agreement I fired a rude question at him.

I had been frustrated by the evasions and the talk of peacemaking when crossing the IRA could still cost a young man his life.

I said: "Martin, if you shot me, would that be a breach of the ceasefire or not?"

"Ach", he replied. He was disgusted with me.

He had his Press officer write to every editor who employed me then to complain that this was an improper question to put to a public representative.

That is how he wanted to be seen, a democratically elected politician who was in no way answerable in public for the actions of the IRA.

The puzzle was how he could separate those roles in his mind, see them as wholly separate. A few years later we clashed again. He was at the Harbour Commissioners' Office in Belfast announcing the appointment of Michael Longley to the Ireland chair of poetry.

We saw the familiar blushing smile. Martin read one of his own poems. Longley thanked him for it.

Martin admired the lovely building and recalled that he had only two weeks earlier welcomed Meryl Streep there.

Later he caught my eye and I brought Helen Madden over to introduce her to him. Then I couldn't resist the quip: "I bet you're really glad now you didn't have this place bombed, Martin."

Again he was furious, and it was, similarly, the fury of exasperation. The problem was not that he was being wrongly accused of being in the IRA; it was that on an occasion like this, that was, to his mind, entirely beside the point.

McGuinness has an air of innocence about him, an almost childlike gladness in his nature, and yet he is the man who led the hard men.

Many of his former comrades are so appalled by the incongruity, the mismatch between the reconciler and the old soldier that they no longer believe he was ever really on their side.

He went further in his efforts to reassure unionists than they did in any effort to placate nationalism and republicanism.

Now his complaint is that none of it had made any difference.

People should understand that an IRA leader shaking hands with the Queen is a very big deal, that any republican who does such a thing, or who damns dissident murderers as "traitors to the island of Ireland" is taking a major risk with his credibility, and perhaps more. This might have been seen as tokenistic or a charade in DUP headquarters, but on the Falls Road and the Creggan it was seen as self-abasement, too much like licking up to the enemy.

It is inconceivable that this is where McGuinness wanted to take Sinn Fein, yet the collapse accords well with the theory of other republicans that compromise and reform would ultimately prove impossible.

That point is made in every book that Gerry Adams wrote.

Now McGuinness is adamant. There will be no return to the status quo. There has to be fundamental reform of the institutions or we will be looking for other ways to govern Northern Ireland.

For now the DUP members are learning that their jobs depended as much on McGuinness as his did on them.

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