It was a warm and dry October afternoon, a rarity in Northern Ireland, when I met Martin McGuinness in Writers Square area of Belfast. I arrived late amidst a sea of revellers, rallying against Tory cuts. After the rally finished, I shook hands and spoke to Mr. McGuinness as he and his entourage were trying to leave.
He looked tired, but his smile was still as bright as ever. At first he thought I was a local, but once he realised I was an American, he humorously wanted to know what I was doing listening to a rally about Tory cuts and suggested sights to see. I said I was just a curious ‘Merkan. He laughed and was sped off by his crew. I wanted to do a story about him, but I never could crack the media blockade at Stormont, and I only had a few days left in the North.
There was a time years ago, when I idolized McGuinness and Adams for their leadership and resistance during the Troubles. The older and wiser man I met that day was more calculative and kind than the fiery young man that joined the Provisional IRA out of a sense of duty and necessity.
McGuinness had a hard time when running for President of the Republic of Ireland in 2011. He came in third place behind Michael D Higgins and Seán Gallagher. Higgins won the presidency and is the current President of RoI. Martin was lambasted by the press and pundits who never understood the struggle, some of which never set foot in the North. But, that is the case when running for public office.
The political party, Sinn Féin, is a democratic socialist party. Since the term “Socialist” makes me cringe and is an affront to freedom, I can’t support it. But, due to my long relationship with people in Belfast and the Short strand area, I do understand the mindset. Regardless of our political differences, I do support a United Ireland. It was one of his greatest hopes.
If I would have been born in the Bog Side around the same time as him, I might have taken a similar path. He made mistakes, and he went to prison for his crimes. In later years, he worked hard towards peace in Northern Ireland. He and Ian Paisley worked together towards peace, two men of different faiths that once hated each other.
While walking through the short strand one afternoon, I met a man that summed it up perfectly. He said that if he’d been born on this side of the wall, referring to the Catholic enclave within Loyalist East Belfast , he would’ve fought for Provos, if he’d been born on the other side, he would’ve fought for the UVF. Religion played a role in the troubles, but it was not the defining factor.
Martin was a product of the Troubles and tirelessly worked to mend fences with Unionist and other foes from that era. In fact, a large group of Unionist are now favouring a United Ireland. Only time will tell what will happen regarding the North. As an American, all I can do is watch and wish them all well. I hope for a United Ireland where Catholics and Protestants are happy in one country on the isle of Eire. It may never come to fruition, but there’s no harm in dreaming.
Rest in peace, Mr. McGuinness.