‘McGuinness was a good man whose sizeable place in Irish history is assured’

PUBLISHED: 17:29 06 April 2017 | UPDATED: 22:20 06 April 2017

AFP/Getty Images

AFP/Getty Images

2006 AFP

IRA man turned peacemaker Martin McGuinness remains a divisive character but we must allow ourselves to change and accept change in others

Funerals are so often such healing events, and that was certainly the case with the farewell to Martin McGuinness. I felt privileged to be there, and at the risk of provoking yet more of the social media dog’s abuse that came my way when I spoke warmly about the former IRA commander turned politician and peacemaker on the day he died, privileged to have worked with him, got to know him well, and to have considered him a friend. When I paid my respects at his open coffin at his home on the morning of his funeral, and spoke with his widow Bernie and their children, I had no difficulty in saying I believed him to be a good man, one I liked and respected, whose company I always enjoyed, and who would have a sizeable place in Ireland’s history.

Of course I understand why someone like Norman Tebbit, his wife confined to a wheelchair since the Brighton bomb, or Julie Hambleton, whose young sister was killed by the Birmingham bomb, and who got very angry with me when we discussed McGuinness’ legacy on Channel Four News, find it hard to forgive or forget his past, let alone see him as positively as I and others do.

But the most powerful theme from the funeral was that if we never allow ourselves to change, never accept that other people might change, never understand that our enemies can become our friends, then how do we ever make progress towards the things we value? McGuinness, I believe, was sincere in the change he made in his life, and that change, and his ability to steer a terrorist movement away from violence, was a major contributor to the peace process and the good it has brought.

Not least thanks to Brexit, which McGuinness campaigned hard against despite failing health, there is a real risk of the peace process moving backwards as the invisible border between north and south returns to being a real border between Brexit UK and the post-Brexit EU. Hardened border and weakened economies could prove a toxic mix. That is why the politics of the funeral, at such a sensitive time in Northern Ireland, were so important.

To hear DUP leader Arlene Foster, whose own father was shot by the IRA, being applauded as she walked into the Church, was almost spine-tingling. As we filed out of the church and into the mass of conversations and memories flowing around in the sunshine as thousands headed to the burial, I said to her: “That was quite something. Martin’s funeral … you get four mentions, Gerry Adams gets one.”

There were other stunning moments: the Catholic priest opening the whole service with a prayer for London – there was some sharp breath intaking going on when people thought he was going to say ‘Londonderry’ not Derry, but London, and the terror attack the day before, is what he meant. Several mentions of the Queen. A Protestant minister telling the congregation he and McGuinness had prayed together. Bill Clinton reminding people of the pride McGuinness took that one of his first acts as education minister was to boost spending in schools in the poorest Protestant areas. Clinton’s wonderful observation that McGuinness “expanded the definition of us, and shrank the definition of them”.

Earlier, as we arrived at the church I went from a conversation with a Special Branch protection officer who used to look after us on our visits to Northern Ireland, to one with a man who, according to the Special Branch guys almost two decades ago, had been involved in the butchery of British soldiers in the back of a taxi. It underlined how far we have come.

I do not minimise the horrors of what the IRA did. My brother Donald served in the Scots Guards in Northern Ireland and came back with some pretty horrible tales to tell. But nor were those horrors minimised in the funeral service, nor the victims of violence forgotten. ‘A time for killing, a time for healing. A time for war, a time for peace.’ That sentiment came not only in the readings and prayers but in the words of McGuinness’ nearest and dearest.

Where would we be if we never changed our own minds about anything, and if we never believed that people who said they had changed their minds had actually done so? We would never change government. We would never change course. We would never change anything. As one of the priests said: “would that more of us were open to the idea of journey.” And, as it was said in one of the prayers, ‘to dwell in the valley of hate’ is an active choice.

The social media abusers are dwelling there. Papers like the Sun and the Mail, (though – Dacre hypocrisy alert – not their Irish editions) were defiantly dwelling there, on this as on Brexit. But IRA godfather McGuinness didn’t, which is why he became a friend of Unionism godfather Ian Paisley, and why for all their recent difficulties he would have been thrilled that Foster and her DUP predecessor Peter Robinson were there, and that Paisley’s son Ian Junior was so warm in tribute. As Clinton said, if those who have a legitimate cause of grievance can work together with former enemies, so can we all.

Tony Blair often says that the peace process moves forwards or backwards, it never stands still. At the funeral, I felt the possibility of it moving forward. Within days, it was moving back again, as the power-sharing talks broke down, raising the prospect of direct rule from Westminster. The word crisis is over-used, not least in Northern Ireland politics. This began to feel like one. But there have been bigger ones resolved in the past, as this one can be now. I hope Theresa May understands what is at stake.

In my last conversation with McGuinness a few weeks ago, we talked cricket, which it may surprise some to know, he loved and followed closely. We talked football, as we always did. We talked about a novel I was co-writing with a former Burnley player, Paul Fletcher, mainly about football in the 1970s, but with a mainland IRA active service unit seeking to assassinate a senior politician as a major part of the plot. No doubt it will ensure more dog’s abuse at the time, but I will be proud to put McGuinness’ name in the acknowledgments for his helpful insights.

But above all we talked Brexit. He was genuinely worried. He had met May with Foster and feared that, in so far as there was a plan, the concerns about Northern Ireland did not figure high within it. He was worried about Labour’s ineffectiveness, and where we were heading. He said it felt like Scotland was already a one-party state, and England was fast becoming one.

Bill Clinton said that if we really wanted to honour his legacy, the best way was to keep working for peace in Northern Ireland, to “finish his work”, to cement the process so it cannot be undone. But I feel the fight against Brexit must be part of that too.

Right now, as I said at the big march last Saturday, I know I am in a minority in thinking this hard Brexit course can be stopped, but I believe I am in a majority in thinking it should be. The government and the Brextremist media want the country to think not only that hard Brexit is inevitable, but that even to question any aspect of their so-called plan is traitorous and in defiance of the will of the people.

So we have to fight for what we believe in, and we have to fight for people to change their minds. In winning those fights we have to show we can change the minds of the country’s leaders. Change May’s mind. She has shown it can be done. After all, until June 23 last year, she was pro Remain, apparently. On the day of the budget, she was pro a rise in National Insurance Contributions for the self-employed. A bit of barking from Tory colleagues and the Dacre dogs of war, and she quickly changed her mind, and Philip Hammond’s mind for him, too.

We have to show we can change Foster’s mind too, for she voted Leave, partly to keep her right wing at bay, almost certainly thinking that Remain would win. We have to change Jeremy Corbyn’s mind and modus operandi, and persuade him that if he wants to reverse the increasingly ridiculous image he has won for himself, he might start by putting some meaning into his ‘the real fight starts now’ tweet that followed his three-line whip on walking with the Tories into the valley of fear and loathing on Article 50.

Eurosceptics did not give up their fight when we entered the EU. The SNP didn’t give up their fight for independence when they lost the first referendum. Barcelona didn’t give up their fight for the Champions League when they needed three goals against Paris St-Germain with a few minutes to go. And we should not give up our fight to stop the damage being done by a Hard Brexit policy for which May does not have the support she claims.

She said in the intro to the cobbled together Brexit White Paper that her greatest asset in the negotiations was the strength and the support of 65m Brits in her endeavours. She does not have that support. She does not even have the support of the 52% because so many of them voted for reasons which have turned out to false – the money for the NHS, the staying in the single market and the customs union, the absolute certainty of a good deal. None of these things are happening.

Everywhere I go in Britain right now, yes I meet people who say we have had the vote and need get on with getting out. But I meet far more who are genuinely worried that the country is careering towards a cliff-edge without a parachute chord anywhere in sight. As the next two years unfold I believe it will become clearer and clearer that the country has made the wrong decision, and the country will demand – and deserve – the chance to think about this again, and change its mind.

I spoke in a school in Derbyshire recently, where just one of the sixth-formers said he would have voted Leave had he had the chance. Everyone else would have voted Remain and, as one of the teenagers, said “I feel my future is being stolen”. We have to fight to win that future back, because no country ever succeeded when governing against the interests of the next generation. We must and we can fight back to stop what many millions here and around the world now view as an act of economic and political suicide for Britain.

There were many lessons to take from Martin McGuinness’ life, and from his death. But the main one, for me, is that people can and do change their minds. People can go from doing the wrong thing, to doing the right thing. The task facing us today is persuading the UK to make that journey, and make it fast, from the wrong thing last June, to the right thing, as the consequences become chillingly clear. It can definitely be done, whatever the obstacles. Of that I am sure, whatever the noise of the Brextremist Lie Machine and the fear the Tory hard right strikes in the heart of our Tory Hard Brexit Prime Minister.

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