SIR PETER BOTTOMLEY: Reflections on Martin McGuinness

Horse Guards Parade
Horse Guards Parade

When I served in the Northern Ireland Office as minister for environment and as minister for agriculture, my London office looked out on Horse Guards Parade.

There was a lighter side to those grim days. Just before 11 o’clock one morning, I asked a visitor if they had watched the famous Changing of the Queen’s Life Guard – no.

I rang the private secretary and passed on this news.

Two minutes later, I invited the guest to come to the window.

The New Guard from Hyde Park Barracks wheeled into view, mounted on their groomed horses with the gleaming breastplates for the start of the half hour ceremony.

My visitor thanked me and said: “That was quick.”

On Tuesday an MP who had given his early life to service in the British Army asked my advice before he took part in a radio discussion on the life of Martin McGuinness, former IRA activist and leader and recently deputy first minister in Northern Ireland.

I suggested that there was an obvious comment and a deeper point.

This man had contributed to the peace process and in government had helped through the ups and downs of cooperation with Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party and others.

Significantly, I pointed out that the history of nationalism in Ireland and later in Northern Ireland was of violent IRA people abandoning murder to put their energy and faith in politics.

Nearly 50 years ago the leaders of the Official IRA were making that transition.

It was after the first time that the Metropolitan Police informed me that an IRA cell in London was gathering information on me that I volunteered to serve as a minister in Northern Ireland; I might at least try to do something that deserved their attention.

I knew, I still remember, that non-Roman Catholics should be blamed for decades of terrible discrimination in employment, in housing and in politics.

The question was, and in many countries still is, whether persistent violence and whether repression works in the interests of the down trodden and the oppressed.

I say no. I say that we have developed and we should cherish the fact that in this country and in nearly half the countries around the world, counting ballot papers after an election is better than losers being exiled or power changing because of long-lasting civil war.

Previous leaders should be able to continue living in their own country, taking a pension or trying again at the next election.

It is not for me to claim to be better than the kind of politician who rubbishes opponents or who suggests they have no place in public life.

I think it is for me to try to understand why they say what they say and do what they do.

As the peace process made progress, I was asked by a non-violent Irish group to speak at the first meeting to be addressed by Martin McGuinness in the Quakers’ Euston road Meeting House.

After taking advice, I agreed. I was asked if I would shake his hand. Ministers had; victims’ families had; I would.

Approaching the room where he was, my way was rudely blocked by two large sour minders.

They asked me who I was. I said that if they did not know me that was their problem.

I pushed them aside, walked in and was welcomed by Martin McGuinness.

I admire our Queen for writing to his widow.


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