Meeting Martin McGuinness

“Ben, Martin, I have to introduce you to each other,” said an Irish writer who knew us both.

It was Dublin March 2016, and we were there to commemorate Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising against British imperial rule. I, an Englishman with what friends tell me is the most English accent ever, was there as a descendant of 1916 Irish rebel leader, Padraig Pearse; Martin McGuinness, former Provisional IRA man, was there as the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, which remains part of the UK.

As a student of history, follower of politics and staunch supporter of the Peace Process I had become, from a distance, and intellectually only, an admirer of Martin McGuiness. He’d ended a war and was central to the new Northern Ireland of inclusivity and progress. He was a super smart politician. Tony Blair once shared at a talk I attended about how in the Peace Process he’d come to like Irish Republican leaders Adams and McGuinness “almost too much”.

And yet I remain an Englishman, steeped in the culture and conversations of my people. To many in England, including amongst those closest to me, McGuinness remained a hate figure, a Bogeyman. In any conversations in which I contextualised what had happened in Northern Ireland I was told back: “no, no, he’s a terrorist, nothing justifies it, nothing.” “But I’m not justifying it, I’m …” “No, no, stop. He’s a terrorist.” And the brutality of the conflict, of which he was a central part, was truly horrific. I strongly opposed the paramilitarism he embodied. Not only did I understand why he personally filled so many with dread, I felt some of it myself. And I felt it surge in me at the very moment we met.

We started talking about the beautiful service of remembrance that had just taken place, what it meant for the elderly relatives. Then we talked about the events being commemorated. I said, as if in challenge, “it wasn’t just about nationalism, it was about a society where all were cherished equally.” “Oh yes yes,” he replied, “that’s what inspires me most about it, how progressive it was: it was 1916 Ireland, and their proclamation begins ‘Irish men and Irish women.’ We’ve still a lot to do on that score.” “Ben is a descendant of Pearse,” our mutual friend shared. “Oh I love his poetry,” McGuinness replied.

He seemed to be doing too well at being gentle and charming, and I worried that I was letting down my English folk, perhaps even my own English self. “I’m English,” I said, “as you can hear from my accent. Pearse’s sister, my great-grandmother, married an Englishman, and we’ve been English ever since.” I smiled in challenge to see his response. “Oh there’s nothing wrong with being English. One of my nieces came to me and said ‘Uncle I’m going to marry an Englishman’ and she waited for my reaction and I said ‘is he a good Englishman?'” And he laughed. And I couldn’t help laugh back.

He asked me about my life as a development worker and shared what he’d learnt from South Africa. He asked me to get in touch if he could ever help my work.

Martin McGuinness had shaken hands with the Queen and made a friendship with the firebrand Protestant Ian Paisley, so befriending an English descendant of an Irish rebel was nothing compared to that. But in my case it was a private conversation with a person irrelevant to political gain and from which he could have extracted himself with ease. And yet he chose not to. Making peace can be the smartest strategy, the best calculation, and it is clear that the strategy he chose was a smart one and that he had especially acute political nous. But that day we met I couldn’t put it all down to that. For all the contradictions of any life, and he was clear that his had been one of both light and dark, it seemed he really was, deeply, a man who sought peace, and his achievement in bringing it was not only political but personal. And it taught me that even our Bogeymen, perhaps especially our Bogeymen, can be our teachers, and that we can learn not only to love our enemies but even to like them. May Martin rest in peace.

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Ben Phillips

About Ben Phillips

Ben Phillips, currently based in Nairobi, is co-founder of the #FightInequality alliance, and Campaigns and Policy Director at ActionAid International. He has lived and worked in four continents and a dozen cities, and led programmes and campaigns teams in Oxfam, Save the Children, the Children's Society, the Global Call to Action Against Poverty and the Global Campaign for Education. He began his development work at the grassroots, as a teacher and ANC activist living in Mamelodi township, South Africa, in 1994, just after the end of apartheid. All his posts are personal reflections. He tweets at @benphillips76