Belfast Telegraph

How memory of Sinn Fein's reconciler-in-chief has been hijacked to become a byword for obstruction

Martin McGuinness had long since ceased to be a hate figure for unionists by the time his resignation as deputy First Minister collapsed the Executive a year ago ... and he'd have booted the disgraced Barry McElduff out of the party, says Malachi O'Doherty

Martin McGuinness could be funny but he wasn't a clown. It's hard to imagine him prancing in front of a camera with a loaf on his head. That more sober approach would have spared him the disgrace that Barry McElduff's antics have landed him in.

And McGuinness managed a relationship with unionists for a time, even though they well knew that he stood by the IRA and its works. Before the first running of d'Hondt to select an executive in December 1999, an Ulster Unionist MLA briefed me that the party had been assured that Sinn Fein would not embarrass them by nominating to a ministerial position someone with a known IRA past.

This was when the SDLP was the majority party within nationalism and the deputy First Minister was going to be Seamus Mallon. Only two seats of the 10 would go to Sinn Fein anyway.

So there were genuine gasps of surprise when Gerry Adams stood up and nominated Martin McGuinness as Minister of Education.

The next day there were protest walkouts by pupils in some protestant schools.

McGuinness had been a hate figure for unionists for many years.

He was known to have been an IRA leader. Police officers who had stopped his car in Derry talked of his steely gaze. Once when the RUC had been delivering a road safety presentation in his child's school, McGuinness walked into the room and withdrew his child.

The police nickname for him was Art Garfunkel, countering his fearsome manner with mockery of his hair.

Martin McGuinness had been thought of in the IRA as a hardliner, one of those who swore after the calamitous 1975 ceasefire that there would be no future ceasefires without clear assurances in advance.

Through the early stages of the peace process there was media speculation that Adams would have problems getting McGuinness on side.

Much of this was based on a simple misreading. McGuinness proved to be a pushover. He loved the peace process. He frankly compared Adams to Mandela.

This has appalled some old diehards so much that they reason that he must have been working for the British all along.

When McGuinness took his seat at his office desk for his new job as Education Minister he smiled like a child opening his Christmas presents.

And that showed us that there was a soft side to this man, a very soft and sentimental side.

A year or so later, I was talking to some unionists about the latest crisis in devolution and it was clear that they did have a hate figure but it wasn't McGuinness; it was Bairbre de Brun. She as Health Minister annoyed them with her insistence on saying everything twice, first in Irish then in English, effectively halving the time they could question her on anything.

McGuinness was now 'Martin'. They weren't going to hug him or be matey with him in front of a camera but they didn't hate him any more. They did hate Gerry Adams and, as I suggested in my recent book about Adams, one of his contributions to the party might have been to act as a lightning rod for unionist contempt.

Every time Adams said he had never been in the IRA the rage flowed towards him, bypassing Martin McGuinness, Jennifer McCann, Caral ni Chuilin, Conor Murphy, Gerry Kelly and a host of other MLAs who were in no position to make such a denial.

But the eager, childlike peacemaker blossomed as never before when the system harnessed him to Rev Ian Paisley, in the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister.First Minister Paisley could jokingly refer to his sidekick as 'deputy', emphasising his junior status, and McGuinness plainly enjoyed that.

As Education Minister he had bequeathed a massive problem to the schools system, abolishing academic selection without devising an alternative, leaving the schools to effectively privatise selection and damning children to going through two systems instead of one.

Jennifer McCann was pulled back into place by the party when she said that McGuinness should have, in effect, found the solution before creating the problem.

Journalists who covered the McGuinness/Paisley years say that McGuinness was often protective of Paisley, that he would actually intercept tricky questions thrown at the DUP leader.

And later we learned that they prayed together and that the Paisley family cherished the friendship between the two men, trusting that they were bound together by faith in God.

The years as deputy to Peter Robinson were not as amicable but they weren't as difficult as either man might have made them. They didn't joke much together in public.

But McGuinness showed a willingness to respect symbols and occasions of importance to unionists, and even shook hands with the Queen.

These were times when the DUP also felt that it could gain credit through conciliatory gestures.

But this was the period in which the flags protest arose, loyalism took to the streets and the DUP felt compelled to assuage the rage.

And when Arlene Foster took over as First Minister she was more distant from him, carrying the hurt from her father having been shot, herself having been on a school bus that the IRA bombed.

McGuinness, among other republicans, was clear that he was not apologising for the IRA campaign. His wanted to be accepted as a soldier who had put down his gun, but he was never going to concede that he had had no right to take it up in the first place.

Yet, after the 2016 election to the Assembly, with the smaller parties going into opposition, the DUP and Sinn Fein were seen as having almost merged. The leadership was jokingly called Marlene.

This was on the very eve of that relationship falling apart.

McGuinness had thought he could address Arlene Foster like a wise old uncle, urging her to stand aside for a short time to allow for an investigation into the renewable heating scheme that overran its costs, the 'cash for ash' scheme.

And Arlene wasn't going to be patronised, even for her own good, by a man who honoured those who had shot her father and bombed her.

At the same time, republicans muttered that McGuinness had got little in return for his efforts; he was debasing core principles by honouring the Queen.

So the tension just increased.

And we may speculate on whether it might have worked out differently if McGuinness had not then been weakened by illness, and been just weeks away from death.

We wouldn't be where we are if Arlene Foster had trusted his advice to step aside for a while.

Now, almost every major speech by Adams and other republicans, expressing determination to hold fast to current demands, starts by referring to Martin McGuinness's words when he brought down the executive, saying that there would be no return to the status quo.

They say they honour Martin's memory by holding out for equality. And the man who wanted to be a reconciler is now a standard for obstruction.

But his project included assuaging unionist anxiety about the IRA. We can't know how he would have dealt with Barry McElduff. I suspect he would have kicked him out of the party.

Belfast Telegraph

Daily News Headlines Newsletter

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox.

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph