Bertie Ahern reflects on Martin McGuinness, a fellow negotiator who did his best to make peace work
A FEW short weeks ago, the funeral of Dermot Gallagher, a former top civil servant in the Department of An Taoiseach and also Foreign Affairs and Washington ambassador, took place.
Dermot played a significant role in the drive toward peace in Northern Ireland and to my surprise Martin McGuinness was there.
It was scary almost how frail he was, but it was a measure of the man that he travelled down from Derry to Meath to be there.
It was the last time I saw him.
Yes, I can understand why he, as a young man, joined the IRA and I discussed that with him and his colleagues over the years.
I never thought he left the IRA in the 1970s as he claimed. I thought he left sometime before we got deep into the discussions but I never got the sense that he wasn’t there until a much more current date.
Because if he was gone, how did he know the guys so well and so closely?
But, Martin was always very courteous even in the heat of battle.
In negotiations when there is a lot at stake and it can’t be a “winner takes all”; Martin understood compromise.
Often after a tense meeting, he would always ask about family and friends. He took a far keener interest in things greater than the Peace Process.
So, you could always have a discussion with him about family matters. He was very family orientated.
His big thrill was that his mam was there on the big day in 2007 when he became deputy first minister.
He was also sports mad. He was a huge Derry City fan and a Derry GAA supporter, as well as a big Man Utd fan, so you can imagine how easy it was for me to get on with him.
He liked people to see him as a straight talker. If he said something and if anyone went out and said something against that, that would upset him. He always wanted to be seen as upfront and he was upfront.
His objectives were always crystal clear and he was forthright in his views.
He was as honest a negotiator, and I came across many over the years, as you would ever come across.
I have always found that if you made a deal with him, he stood by it. He didn’t come back the following week claiming he never said that.
We had battles and we had rows of course.
Around the time of the Northern Bank robbery there were pretty frosty discussions.
When it came to dealing with Martin and Gerry Adams, the two were very different. He had a totally different style to Gerry.
He was more friendly, the more engaging person. But I always thought Martin was the guy who had to sell the different things to the hardline guys.
I remember him saying to me that there was never a document more closely read in the North than the Good Friday Agreement.
He had to go into the trenches and try and build bridges and bring those people with him. Martin did build up that respect.
If you look at some of the big decisions he backed, like supporting the PSNI, that was a big movement.
But also his moves around Queen Elizabeth’s visit and the language used around the Troubles and the apologies given, they too were huge moves to take. They were not easy moves to make.
And when he came out strongly against the dissidents in 2009 when the soldiers were killed, that was dangerous for him and there were a number of dissidents who were out to get him.
Even after I left office, I continued to see him a lot at matches or commemorations or whatever. We would meet and have a cup of tea and a chat.
He was a guy who really grew to be a friend. I genuinely enjoyed his company and he wanted to make the whole thing work.
There was no ambiguity with him as there was with others but he tried his best to make it work.
In conversation with Daniel McConnell
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