What It Was Like to Negotiate With Martin McGuinness

Sinn Fein chief negotiator Martin McGuinness answering journalists' question during a press conference in London in February 1998
Sinn Fein chief negotiator Martin McGuinness answering journalists' question during a press conference in London in February 1998Gerry Penny / Getty

The first time I met Martin McGuinness was in October 1997, in Castle Buildings at Stormont together with Tony Blair. We had arranged the meeting in a small windowless room in the drab government block to avoid TV cameras filming the meeting as they had a previous meeting with Mo Mowlam, our Northern Ireland Secretary. This was the first meeting between a British prime minister and Republican leaders for 75 years. Alastair Campbell and I declined to shake hands with him as a terrorist—a decision I regret now—but Tony Blair far more sensibly shook his hand as he would any other human being.

I didn’t feel warm and cuddly about the IRA. They had shot and injured my father in an ambush in 1940 and put my brother, who worked for Margaret Thatcher, on a death list for eight years. But shortly after that meeting I got a call from McGuinness asking me to come and meet him in Derry incognito. I was not to tell the “securocrats.” After consulting Tony I agreed and flew to Belfast and took a taxi to Derry. I stood on a street corner feeling foolish until two men with shaved heads approached me, saying “Martin sent us,” and pushed me into the back of a taxi. They drove me around for an hour until I was completely lost and dropped me outside a neat little house on the edge of a modern estate. Martin McGuinness answered the door on crutches making an unfunny joke about kneecapping, the IRA’s favored way of punishing people. I spent three hours in the house trying to find a way around the key problem of the IRA decommissioning its weapons. We didn’t make any breakthroughs, but it became clear to me during that meeting that if we were going to achieve peace we were going to have to talk to our enemies and build some trust.

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Over the next nine years I would cross the Irish Sea on a regular basis to meet Gerry Adams and McGuinness in safe houses in Belfast, Dublin, and elsewhere, and I grew to like McGuinness. I didn't forget that he was an IRA leader and that innocent people had died because of the choices he made. But I did see his commitment to making peace, and I saw the human side of the man. Martin McGuinness popped up every time peace was discussed with the British government. He was part of an IRA delegation flown by the government to meet Willie Whitelaw in Cheyne Walk in 1972; he was at the end of a secret channel between the IRA and Prime Minister John Major in 1991 negotiating to end the war; and he was Sinn Fein’s chief negotiator with John Major’s government in 1995 and with Tony Blair’s from 1997. He played a crucial role, risking his life in doing so, to bring about peace in Northern Ireland. And in those negotiations he was always warm and friendly. He didn’t hide his emotions and could fly off the handle into a long tirade over some point of Republican theology. But he could equally ask about your wife’s birthday or after your dying mother.

Even more remarkably than making peace, McGuinness made peace work in Northern Ireland as deputy first minister, sharing power with his sworn enemy, the Unionist firebrand, Ian Paisley. I remember sitting in Paisley’s office the day they were sworn in looking in amazement at the two of them trying to out do each other with jokes as the “chuckle brothers” were born. McGuinness wisely decided to show respect to Paisley’s age and seniority and made an effort to forge a partnership with him. The moment I realized the peace process was going to work was when one morning in May 2007 I got a call from a Northern Ireland Office official who told me that Paisley was in a terrible mood. I was depressed, thinking the whole thing was unravelling, but the official reassured me that no, no there wasn’t a problem. It was just that Adams and Paisley had been up late Scottish Irish dancing and the old man was tired.

Now that McGuinness has gone a new generation in Northern Ireland has to make the peace process work. The new leaders of the Unionists and the Republicans were too young to have been directly involved in the Troubles. And yet it looks as though following the recent elections in the province they are not going to be able to reconstitute the power-sharing executive. I hope that McGuinness’s death and the memory of all that he achieved will make them think again. It would be ridiculous that if Paisley and McGuinness could sit alongside each other in harmony after all that had gone before, the new leaders cannot do so now.

Whatever I thought of Martin McGuinness when I first met him, I will now miss his warmth and his humor. And Britain and Ireland will long remember his contribution both to making peace and to making that peace agreement work in practice.

This article has been adapted from Jonathan Powell’s book, Great Hatred, Little Room: Making Peace in Northern Ireland.