Martin McGuinness was an inspiring peacemaker – and, for many years, chief-of-staff of the Provisional IRA. He led Northern Ireland towards an unlikely peace, and was responsible for the deaths of countless people. Yet, perhaps, given the failure of peace initiatives led by moderates, he could not have done the former had he not been the latter.
When I was in Northern Ireland, a few years ago, I met a man who told me of an encounter with McGuinness, way back in 1971. It ought to be repeated. This is what he said:
“I was listening to the ten o’clock news one evening, and I realised I’d run out of cigarettes. I got in the car and I went to Guildhall Square. But the cigarette machine had been vandalised, so I went to Fiorentini’s café. There were two girls sitting in the café, and they asked me if I could give them a lift home. I thought to myself, ‘Well now, two young girls, my wife’s away. What about it?’ So I said yes, and asked where they lived. They said in a very subdued whisper, ‘The Creggan’. I thought about it – my God! This really is an opportunity. The Creggan was a no-go area, I could say that I’ve been there, and nobody else has. So I said OK, and I finished my cup of coffee, and Mr Fiorentini gave me two packets of cigarettes. We got in the car, and went up into the Lecky Road, and there were armed IRA men all over the place. The girls said some password to them, and we were let through. Then we were let through a second one by Free Derry Corner. Just after that, there was a third one – and all hell broke loose. The car was surrounded. I was pulled out and forced on to the ground, and the girls were taken away.”
“Now, I looked and sounded like a British officer; I was about thirty, and spoke the Queen’s English, so somebody must have assumed that I was a British officer, or that I was trying to spy on the IRA. My car was taken away, and I was bundled into the back of another car, and I was sat on by about five heavy young men – which was a most horrid thing. I was given a few kicks – not in the balls – but around the back and arms, and I was manhandled across a bit of green in front of the modern Catholic Cathedral, into a place where I was sat in a chair, with a light bulb above me, just like interrogations in films. A couple of fellows were behind me with old fashioned Sterling machine guns, pointing at the back of my head, and then the most extraordinary sight. A crocodile of about a dozen men entered, all in balaclavas, a pretty shambolic looking lot. Then an extraordinary character came in, who had the air of a deserter from the army. He was clean, fair haired and much younger than me.”
“This man took position behind my head, drew a pistol from his belt, and asked me various questions – which were pretty banal. Since I wasn’t in the army, and I wasn’t in the Ulster Defence Regiment, he couldn’t get any information out of me. He said, ‘Your car’s been seen going out of Ebrington Barracks on many occasions, so you must be a spy!’ I said to him, ‘My dear fellow, you’re completely and absolutely crazy! These are my friends. These people were at school with me. Of course I’m going to go and see them and have them to my house. Do you think they’re going to tell me secrets about you? You’d have to be joking – they just don’t do that sort of thing!’ Eventually he got fed up talking to me, and I stayed with these fellows guarding me for several hours. There was absolutely no brutality whatsoever, no question.”
“Eventually somebody else came in, and said, ‘OK, you. We’ll give you back your car’ and I was led outside, and there was the car, engine running. The man who had been interrogating me was in an absolute fury. His eyes were just full of fury. He drew his pistol, cocked it, put it beside my head, and this other fellow said, ‘Oh no! Don’t kill him! We’ve checked him out with the boys in Ardmore, and he and his family have always been decent to people like us. He’s OK.’ I remember those words very well; one tends to listen if you think you’re about to be killed. The man was absolutely livid. He put his pistol back in his belt and said, ‘Fuck off!’ So I got in the car and drove away. But I had to ask, ‘Could you please show me the way out? I’ve never been here before.’ And they did – they got into another car and they drove in front of me! They also pinched my cigarettes, which I really objected to. I still didn’t have any cigarettes after the whole bloody night.”
No cigarettes, perhaps, but he still had his life. He had survived his encounter with a fair-haired, young, and absolutely furious Martin McGuinness.