Mitchel McLaughlin: 'I never had any doubt that I was doing the right thing'
As he prepares to stand down as Stormont's first republican Speaker, Mitchel McLaughlin of Sinn Fein tells Noel McAdam the Assembly is a 'world away' from 1998.
Q. In your end of mandate address you spoke about the "negative reportage" of the Assembly, but surely by now it reflects the public view of the Assembly?
A. I think it probably does, but this is a question which the media should ask themselves in terms of the negative perception. All of what is going on at Stormont... it's not all negative is the point.
Q. Yet when we see the recent standoff over the expenses for MLAs, the media didn't create that?
A. No, obviously they didn't create that, but I think it is a question of proportionality and at the end of the day this was a dispute which I am not going to reopen, not least given the strong personalities involved. It was already a media storm before it got as far as it did.
Q. Has it been resolved yet?
A. Both sides involved in this have different roles to play but the fact is we had been dealing with the issues behind this in private before it broke in the media, and I think we should ask who was responsible for that.
Yes, it is part of the past, and it will not happen again because we will sign off on everything in the House, and if necessary we will sign off on everything twice.
Q. Then there was also the unseemly row over the Remembrance Service, and again the media did not make that up?
A. Yes but in this case I think the media handled this pretty well. There was a strong sensationalist argument over including the national anthem as the story developed but I think most responsible people could understand we were trying to involve both nationalists and unionists in a service of respect for the fallen of World War One and we did that. My decision, and it had to be an Executive decision not to include the national anthem, meant that we achieved what we set out to do.
Q. So when do you actually stand down? Is there any need to have a Speaker when the Assembly is in recess?
A. Well I still have to stay on during the next few weeks. The Assembly Commission (which runs Parliament Buildings and which the Speaker chairs) continues during an election period and then I will be in the chair for the first Assembly meeting after the election, when a new Speaker will be elected.
Q. Does that mean you can take no part in Sinn Fein's election campaign?
A. When I took up office I quite consciously stepped back from all of that, although I do go to party meetings and did attend the selection convention, mostly to thank those who had supported me.
Q. But will you not be involved even behind the scenes, advising?
A. I am already semi-retired in my own mind, and looking forward to it. I do want to introduce my successor (as a candidate in South Antrim) but in terms of canvassing, out on the stump and public meetings, I will not be involved in any of that.
Q. Was there any option to stay on for a period of the next Assembly?
A. Well they would have had a battle on their hands to get me to do it. I actually intended to retire out of Foyle (his Assembly seat before South Antrim) but I was persuaded about the challenge of fighting South Antrim and to contest it again to consolidate the seat and then the office of Speaker came up, and principal Deputy Speaker before that.
So I have actually postponed my retirement by nine years.
Q. But what would you have done if you had retired at 60?
A. I would have had no problem, I was absolutely serious about it. I had planned to go back to college. I wanted to study English literature, if you can believe that. I had always been a great reader. I would mostly have read history and politics, as you might imagine, but fiction also.
Q. Could a moral case to stay on not have been made to the DUP?
A. Well although I say I had already decided I was going, actually nobody suggested my staying on! Which perhaps tells you something (laughs). I do think there was a general consensus Sinn Fein should take up the post and it was a positive decision for us to do so.
Q. Yet the DUP stuck to the letter but hardly the spirit of its deal with Sinn Fein for the Speaker's position so you had less time in office than you really should have.
A. No, I don't think they stuck to their deal, but then in the first instance this was something the DUP had difficulty getting over the line, within their own ranks (agreeing to a Sinn Fein Speaker).
I would say one of the successes of my time in office is that I have developed very good relationships with all the parties, including the DUP. And if there was another deal for the Speaker perhaps there would be a different approach.
Q. Do you know what is going to happen in terms of your successor?
A. I haven't a clue. My own view is that I would be very satisfied if the Speaker and Deputy were to be women, and I also think it would be a good development if the Speaker came from one of the smaller parties. It would demonstrate that there is access to the office for others.
Q. Were you annoyed at the delay to your succession?
A. I don't think so. If anything my predecessor Willie Hay (now Lord Hay) was more anxious about it because he felt a deal had been made. I just focused on my role as principal deputy speaker.
Q. I have heard some MLAs, including unionists, say privately that you had the authority which your predecessor never quite achieved. Does it feel that way?
A. Do they mean authority in the Chamber? I would say there are only two MLAs I do not have a good relationship with.
Q. Phil Flanagan (of Sinn Fein, whom the Speaker upbraided several times) and who else?
A. I am not going to name names. But I have had people who told me they were forced to support me but now think I did a good job. Willie Hay had a quieter approach and he was certainly very encouraging and helpful to me.
Q. But do you feel that it left you with less time to achieve what you wanted to as Speaker?
A. We did hit the ground running and I made good use of a long apprenticeship. I suppose every individual brings their own qualities to the role and I am no different.
Q. Your place in history is secured as the first republican Speaker - what would you change about the actual role itself?
A. Well, the first nationalist as well, I think there is a whole section of society who will have seen that as significant. I do not really think it is about the degree of power the Speaker has. I didn't have any problems, and in fact I think it got easier as time went on.
Q. Surely for most of your life you would not have seen the Stormont Speaker as the pinnacle of a republican career?
A. Well, if you had asked me that question 20 years ago I would have agreed with you. But I think that there has been a fundamental change here, and the issue for republicans which people should understand, and why the IRA folded up their tents and went away, is because of that fundamental change, (republicans) were able to achieve their objectives through democracy and persuasion, and realising if you have the majority you can make the changes you want, but if not then you have to make the status quo work.
Q. Were you ever uncomfortable in the role of speaker? How about at, for example, Commonwealth functions?
A. No, I was never uncomfortable, I had made my decision (to take up the office). While of course you think about all of this when my mind was made up, it was made up. I had stepped back from Sinn Fein and saw myself as a representative of everyone, including unionists.
I am actually coming up to my 50th anniversary as a republican - at Easter.
Q. Would you concede that some republicans would view becoming Speaker of a six county Assembly a betrayal?
A. I have been awakened at 3am with my house being petrol-bombed, my car has been attacked and vandalised, so of course there are people out there who do think like that and something like that can be quite dangerous. But I have never had any doubt that I was doing the right thing.
Q. How do you think your period in office will be viewed?
A. I am leaving office and really quite satisfied overall. The fact that people have come up to me, outside of the Assembly as well, and said they have appreciated some things I have done or said, is... very pleasing. They include some people who only voted for me on a three-line whip.
Q. Is it arguable that you had a harder time than others proving your neutrality and impartiality as Speaker - there were those waiting and hoping to catch you out?
A. There were early challenges but I have very sharp antennae for dealing with emergencies and was often able to head them off, sometimes by using a bit of humour, which can be the best way. Some I dealt with discreetly so there was no public dimension.
Q. And could this have meant a hard time in particular for Phil Flanagan - you were always on his case?
A. I could have gone further. No, he eventually settled down. Nobody got picked on. I could not have taken a different approach to Sinn Fein MLAs, and of course I never did.
Q. In what way is the Assembly in most urgent need of reform - if you think it is?
A. Yes, I think there are lots in terms of party politics, some people seem wedded to some of the conventions of Westminster, rather than modernising the system, so we spend a lot of time going through the lobbies to vote. I think there are more efficient ways we could be using our time. Often it is just about political theatre, but with modern technology we could save time for debating.
MLAs do have a lot of information to process but we have digitalised things to the point where I think that has improved, although there is still more we could do.
Q. Can a Speaker hope to make an impact when, for example, you have MLAs regularly reading from prepared scripts like primary school pupils?
A. Yes, I feel anyone - not just an MLA, but anyone - should be able to speak for three to five minutes on a topic they are interested in. It is just a matter of confidence... I have even seen Members reading out their questions.
Q. One of your own initiatives was attempting to deal with the legacy - to turn events which divide us into opportunities to build on reconciliation - quite a tall order?
A. Yes, it's a tall order. I don't pretend that looking back on history in a respectful, inclusive and non-confrontational way is necessarily easy to achieve. However, attempting to understand it in hindsight and listening to the perspectives of others can only benefit our society today.
Q. How did it come to be that you did not realise the role of nationalists in the First World War until you were in your 60s, especially for someone such as yourself who reads so much history and politics?
A. It was a blindspot. I do regret that it was not until I was in my 60s I came to a full appreciation that there were 300,000, and some say 500,000, Irish people involved in the First World War. Actually, there is a phenomenon which has been recognised and which is called 'nationalist amnesia'.
Q. So how do we as a society get to the stage where people know more than just part of their history - does it come back to education in the end?
A. Clearly it does. But it is about changing the focus because as time goes on we can get more distant and at times detached from the actual facts because of stories which are promulgated. A more objective approach would clearly involve the education system, and working towards a shared history. We might each have our own difficulties and perspective on aspects of our history, but nonetheless we need to acknowledge that they have all influenced where we find ourselves today.
Q. What are your pastimes outside of politics? What do you enjoy doing?
A. Well, until my mid-30s I was very sporty and involved in football (GAA). I also had the distinction of bringing The Dubliners to Derry to the minor hall of the Guildhall in 1965. It was very early in their career. I made £50 profit. I still love to collect music, and I have very eclectic tastes but apart from Irish traditional music, as you might expect, (Mississippi) Delta Blues is the music I play most.
Q. You are 70 now - what else are you planning to do out of office?
A. I am going to have a lie-in for a start (laughs). I am going to take three months off and, indeed, if that goes well, it might be extended to six months off. And then, or so I am told, the ideas will come to me. I am not one for sitting about but I would love to get out for a good walk for three or four hours.
Q. And what about your family?
A. My wife Mary-Lou says I am married to her, she is not necessarily married to me. We have been married for 40 years and have three sons - Conor (36), Ronan (34) and Niall (31), and five grandchildren - four boys and a granddaughter.
Q. Another of your own touchstone issues was the promotion of greater participation by women in the Assembly - why did you choose to do that?
A. It has been a focus of mine for a long time. For many years, actually. I do consider myself a feminist. I am not going to have babies, I am not going to burn my bra, but I think a man can be a feminist. I think men should stand up on these issues.
We currently have 23 female Members. That is our best record, but I think that most people would recognise that it is also a record of dismal failure. It is still nowhere near good enough. If we were truly to represent the community that we are elected by, we should have 51% women in the Assembly. When I preside over the registration of new Members and the election of a new Speaker, I will be looking very carefully to see how well we have improved on the existing record. I anticipate that we will improve on it, but I do not think that we are going to crack the 51%.
Q. Do you leave the Assembly a better place than you found it ?
A. I do think if you took a snapshot of what it was like in 1998, when we were just coming out of years of conflict, the parties lined up along traditional lines and it was really conflict by another name. Now we have a near normal legislature. Of course there are still divisions, but this is also where 30 pieces of legislation have gone through all stages in the last year and it is a world away from where we were back then.