A friend of mine is a school principal up here, and when Martin McGuinness was Minister for Education, he invited him to the prize giving. Many were addressing him as Mr McGuinness and he was having none of it - “My name is Martin!” was his reply. He ended up in the kitchen after the ceremonies were over, rolling up his sleeves and helping the tea ladies do the dishes.
Therein was a small insight into the man - a man who did not let power or status go to his head - was straight, honest and showed humility - someone who could put himself in the shoes of the other person - all qualities that built the character and were so important when it came to the hugely important negotiations that followed our Troubles. How important were his quailites? He was central to a peace process that may have saved up to 2,000 lives or more, on the basis of Troubles based deaths.
On top of that, he created a peaceful society up here that has allowed the next generation to grow up in an environment that is much more ‘normal’ than the one I grew up in. There are many of course who will point to his military past. I can understand the anger and reluctance of many people - yes, even Norman Tebbit, who have been at the receiving end of the violence, although I would add that Tebbit has regualrly shown himself to be an odious individual, as evidenced by quotes such as ‘Get on your bike…’ to the unemployed of 1980s Britain.
My hope would have been, if I were in someone like Tebbit’s situation, that I would have been able to forgive, but who knows? What I do know is that I have untold admiration for Jo Berry who lost her Dad at Brighton, and who emphasised strongly that Tebbit did not speak for her. That is the sort of generosity of spirit that is needed to move on - McGuinness had it - the Tebbits of this world don’t.
What of his IRA membership? Once again, I would be reluctant to judge. He was in a position where gerrymandering denied his people the right to have their voice heard in a City where they were the majority, who lived in abject poverty as second class citizens, and who were bludgeoned off the road at Burntollet when they tried to stand up for their rights. Watching that now - some fifty years later - still makes my blood boil!!
There are a number of political commentators up here who feel his passing has left a gap in the tricky negotiations that are to come in the next week or two - their insight suggests that his negotiating skills will be sorely missed in trying to reach a compromise, and that in itself relfects on his role in achieving peace.
I would have to say that I was always anti-violence, and that I only felt able to vote for Sinn Fein after the Good Friday agreement. Indeed even now, as a Nationalist, they are still not assured of my vote every time.
However despite that, I feel like my community has lost a leader - a statesman if you like - and somehow there is a sense or feeling of being more vulnerable, particularly when it comes to the tricky political negotiations ahead. His was a steady hand at the wheel - someone who you felt you could trust - and that will be missed.
His passing has left a void.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.