On a night Martin McGuinness may have been scheduled to die in Belfast, he was instead at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, answering a student’s
question about what he’ll do when he reaches heaven’s pearly gates.
“I have a problem with people deciding who’s guilty and who’s innocent,” said McGuinness, chief negotiator for Northern Ireland’s Sinn Fein party. “I’m a practicing Catholic…. I hope that His judgment of me will not be a harsh one.”
The question was just one of several difficult ones fired at McGuinness from the audience when he finished his talk, “Will Britain Ever Keep Faith?” on Friday (March 12) in the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum.
McGuinness, who once told a court he was a proud member of the Irish Republican Army, is no stranger to struggle. He joined Sinn Fein in 1970 and has played a central role in the Irish republican movement in Northern Ireland, representing Sinn Fein in talks with the British government, and acting as Sinn Fein’s lead negotiator in the talks that led to the 1998 Good Friday accord.
The agreement provided for re-establishment of Northern Ireland’s self-government, by means of a 108-member assembly. The agreement ended direct rule from Britain that began in 1972. The assembly was suspended in 2002, however.
Northern Ireland was divided from the south in 1920, with the south eventually becoming the Republic of Ireland. Catholic republicans, who form the minority in the north, support unification with Ireland. Protestant unionists, who form the majority, support continued union with Britain.
Violence between the two sides claimed 3,000 lives between 1969 and 1994, when the IRA announced a cease-fire.
McGuinness blamed unionist reluctance to share power with Catholics for the suspension of the Good Friday agreement, but said the pact is the only way forward.
A stark reminder of the violence that can still break out in Northern Ireland came in McGuinness’ response to the question about heaven. He began by saying that coincidentally, two police officers had delivered a note to his house the previous day. The note, which they’d gotten through a charitable organization, said that he was to be executed in Belfast that evening.
“So it’s a good thing I’m in Boston,” McGuinness said.
Though the Assembly established in the peace process was suspended in October 2002, McGuinness said former U.S. President Bill Clinton has held the peace process in Northern Ireland up as an example of how a violent struggle can be ended through peaceful means.
“We’re a very small island, but we have a very important contribution to make,” McGuinness said. “People are looking for a clear hope, we’re hoping to provide that on the island of Ireland.”
McGuinness repeatedly called for talks to resume in order to reinvigorate the Good Friday agreement.
“Whatever problems there are at the moment, they should be looked at as problems to be overcome,” McGuinness said. “I believe the peace process is the way to move forward.”
McGuinness said he is convinced that one day Ireland will be unified. But he said it would only happen peacefully, after gaining support of a majority in Northern Ireland, including a substantial number of unionists. Until that time, he said, he’s content to wait.
“I think there’s a lot of unionists who think if you give Republicans and Catholics equality, that will be the end of union [with Britain] as they know it. I think they’re 100 percent right,” McGuinness said.
McGuinness said that commerce between Ireland and Northern Ireland is expanding, as the business community realizes the partition of the two countries doesn’t make economic sense.
“Business people recognize that the partition of Ireland, from an economic sense, is ridiculous,” McGuinness said.
Despite the IRA’s violent past, McGuinness said he deplores the violence created by international terrorism. He said al Qaeda should stop its operations immediately, and Spain’s ETA should sit down and negotiate with the Spanish government.
“I don’t care who was responsible,” McGuinness said of last week’s train bombing in Spain. “It was wrong. It was deplorable. I don’t care who was responsible and I unreservedly condemn it.”
McGuinness spoke of several problems facing Northern Ireland, urging talks between different sides to resolve them. Policing in Northern Ireland is still seen by the Catholic community as being controlled by unionists. He called for eliminating the use of rubber bullets and restoring control of the police from Britain to Northern Ireland.
“Six years on from the Good Friday Agreement, we’re still a ways from having a nonpartisan policing service,” McGuinness said. “We need a transfer of power to the elected representatives of the people of [Northern] Ireland.”
Education, of which he was minister before the Assembly was suspended, needs radical reform, McGuinness said. He said the education system was appropriate for the past’s farm economy and totally inappropriate for the modern world.
As education minister, McGuinness said he worked to improve the system for all children, republican and unionist, Catholic and Protestant. He said he worked to improve education for children with disabilities and worked to abolish the “11-plus” exam. The exam, given to children when they reach age 11, determined their future educational path.
“They said to me, Don’t even think about doing anything [to 11-plus]. The powers that be will come down on me like a ton of bricks,” McGuinness said. “I bitterly resent the fact that I’m not doing my job [because the Assembly has been suspended], the important job of reform.”
McGuinness said change is on the way in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein was within 15,000 votes of becoming Northern Ireland’s largest party at the last election, he said.
“It’s critical that unionists recognize that the Good Friday agreement is the only way forward,” McGuinness said. “Important change is taking place, how important remains to be seen.”