Belfast Telegraph

Peter Robinson: Through Martin McGuinness' illness we met, spoke by phone and exchanged texts

Former First Minister Peter Robinson reflects upon the unlikely but remarkably robust bond he formed with Martin McGuinness — and how they talked and met throughout the SF man’s final days.

This will be a very difficult time for Martin's family and friends and for that section of the community who repeatedly chose him to be their spokesman. In particular, for Bernie and the family circle there will be a great sense of loss and sadness.

Most of us have experienced these moments in our own lives and can only pray that God will be exceedingly close to them at this time of mourning. I know from my many conversations with Martin just how much he loved his family; how much they meant to him and how much a part of his life they were.

I recall those times as we returned from travelling across the globe on Ministerial business the joy he radiated knowing he would be going home to them. I hope that the fond personal memories of times spent together will help lessen their burden and provide some measure of comfort in their grief.

I am often asked if I considered Martin to be a friend. I always found it difficult to give a snappy answer to that question. As I look back, "friendship" would be an inadequate description that would do no justice to our unique relationship.

It was probably more robust and enduring than most friendships and certainly closer, more complicated and formidable than many.

While the media obsessed over any difficulty or disagreement that from time to time would arise because of our distinct political mandates we would have been sitting down seeking to find a solution or working out how we would manage the differences.

There never were any tantrums. Yelling and screaming were not part of Martin's temperament. Even after my retirement and through his illness we met, spoke by phone and exchanged texts.

Outside the business of governing we spent many hours talking together - no subject was off limits - but family, faith and football were ever present themes.

We were very different in political, cultural and religious terms but we both shared a desire - not just to make the institutions work - but to shape a future in which our people would be reconciled to one another and would be judged by their contribution to a shared society rather than the ancient allegiances inherited at birth.

Sadly, too often, events would knock us off course but together we consistently picked ourselves up and returned to our common goal.

Martin publicly admitted his leadership role in the IRA with all its implications and with all the impact it has had on countless lives. You don't have to be a unionist to understand the hurt expressed by victims of the IRA's campaign.

Every section of our community has faced devastating loss. Equally, you don't have to be a republican to appreciate the political leadership Martin displayed in bringing republicans out of conflict and into the political institutions. All these views form part of his life and legacy.

In life, we play the hand we are dealt and not all our choices are good ones. Whether, or not, you believe in the credo that politicians should never accentuate their errors by verbalising them I am certain most will agree that worthy actions are more convincing that the spoken word in demonstrating change.

My first personal encounter with Martin came in a UTV studio when I ended the DUP's refusal to engage in media interviews with Sinn Fein. It was hardly a meeting of minds. Next morning's newspaper headline shrieked "Studio War".

Yet the non-engagement taboo had been broken and before long the negotiating process would begin. The next time we sat down face-to-face was to prepare the historic statement that announced agreement had been reached between our parties to form an Executive in Northern Ireland.

It was one of the best kept secrets in politics. The shock on the faces of reporters as they were brought in to the press conference to see the DUP and Sinn Fein sitting together demonstrated our joint ability to keep confidences and refrain from leaking. That trust was to endure over many difficult periods and allowed us to de-escalate many tense situations.

By the time Martin and I came together as First and Deputy First Minister devolution's honeymoon was over.

We ran the hard yards of jointly governing a deeply divided society while operating complex and demanding institutions in a manner that could instil confidence and bring delivery.

Real progress was made. Lives were improved. The business of governing amid the legacy of history and hurt while at the same time coping with the endless jolts that politics brings, was a challenge and test for both of us.

We both would have wished to move further and faster but we recognised the imperative of bringing everyone possible along with us.

That meant we each had to accept frustration and respect the pace of each other's support base.

Given my seven and a half years working closely alongside Martin in OFMDFM I probably have had a better insight into his thinking than any other unionist politician. I am absolutely certain he had reached a place in his life where he wanted to ensure there would be no reversion to the days of violence and I am equally persuaded that he was genuinely seeking reconciliation and progress in our community.

In my view no other republican could have performed the role he did during this transition. In the period of reflection that retirement provides I have often considered whether there was an alternative route to the one we took.

I know there are some who will never come to terms with power-sharing with Sinn Fein and Martin's elevation to Ministerial office.

My entry to politics was occasioned by the murder of my friend in an IRA bomb attack, so I will never dismiss these sentiments nor play down the pain that has been felt by so many.

I am also sufficiently open to be able to recognise that for republicans and nationalists working with convinced, unalterable - even trenchant - unionists is, for them, hardly a cheerful choice.

Yet the real decision for all of us was whether we wanted hostilities to continue or to end. Even an unconditional end to violence, welcome though that would have been, would not have resolved our community's historic divisions - only a shared stake in the future and working with a collective purpose toward a common goal can do that.

In the challenging period we have entered we all need our politicians to recommit to the principle of creating that shared society and working to fulfil the vision of a new and better era for all our people.

Martin's authority and influence in reaching agreement and in selling it to the republican faithful will be greatly missed.

Belfast Telegraph


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