DUBLIN — Standing at the Butcher’s Gate in Londonderry, Martin McGuinness often had to choose between war and peace. For the longest time, he chose war.
I met McGuinness for the first time in 1989 at that spot, which marks the dividing line between the walled hilltop centre of the Northern Ireland city and McGuinness’ impoverished Catholic home district of the Bogside below. With his curly reddish hair and broad bare forehead, he looked more like the singer Art Garfunkel than the cold-blooded Irish Republican Army leader that many Protestants saw.
The Butcher’s Gate has been one of the most viciously contested patches of earth in the entire Northern Ireland conflict, ever since the walled city’s British Protestant garrison first bolted the gate doors in the face of a besieging Irish Catholic army in 1688. Three centuries later, McGuinness stood firm on the same spot as the undisputed general of Irish republicanism, observing calmly as masked youths nearby hurled rocks, bricks and the occasional flaring petrol bomb at rows of armoured police cars 100 yards away.
“Let me know,” McGuinness said, turning to a stubble-faced young lieutenant overseeing the riot, “if anything changes.”
How things did change, thanks in part to the remarkable transformation of the former apprentice butcher who, as the IRA’s most highly esteemed militant, used his formidable clout to bury the hatchet with his Protestant enemies. The onetime man of war will be remembered, ultimately, for his peacemaking works.
McGuinness became commander of the IRA in Derry, as Irish nationalists call the city, in the months following Bloody Sunday in 1972, when British troops surged through IRA road barricades in the Bogside and killed 13 unarmed demonstrators. Each year since, McGuinness led processions commemorating those killings and cited them as justification for the IRA to keep slaying police and soldiers until Northern Ireland’s links to the United Kingdom could be broken.
But by the late 1980s, two decades of IRA carnage had failed to advance that goal in the face of stern Protestant opposition to a united Ireland. The British government sensed in McGuinness the necessary combination of political savvy and martial appeal to be able to deliver an IRA cease-fire. It sent an MI6 intelligence agent to Derry in 1990 to test McGuinness’ appetite for a mutually face-saving peace.
The agent, Michael Oatley, found McGuinness a surprisingly willing partner. Instead of intransigence, he found reason. It still took four years of largely clandestine contacts to coax the IRA into a 1994 cease-fire that, despite one breakdown, has held firm since 1997.
The silenced guns gave the IRA’s public face, the Sinn Fein party, access to all-party talks on Northern Ireland’s future for the first time. While Belfast party leader Gerry Adams cast the bigger media shadow, McGuinness — billed as “chief negotiator” — was considered the real deal-maker as the figure most able to deliver IRA backing for reform, not revolution.
I met McGuinness again as Sinn Fein lobbied U.S. President Bill Clinton and Irish-American supporters shortly before Sinn Fein’s 1997 entry to the Belfast negotiations. We shared a train cabin from Washington’s Union Station to New York’s Penn Station, during which I reminded him of our first meeting nearly a decade earlier on the edge of a riot.
“I have a past and I’ve never hidden from it. I was involved in armed struggle,” he said. “But I’ve always had my eye on the future. It has taken decades to reach this point. We have a historic chance now to bring lasting peace to Ireland and we have to do all in our power to seize it.”
I recall hearing those words with deep skepticism because Sinn Fein remained committed to Northern Ireland’s elimination as a state, not its peaceful reform through a cross-community government. The IRA had spilled blood for decades to poison that potential. Accepting power-sharing seemed too much of a U-turn.
Yet McGuinness delivered precisely this within a decade, leading Sinn Fein into a unity government with the most stubbornly bellicose Protestant leader of them all, Ian Paisley, in 2007.
Martin McGuinness’ journey from the Butcher’s Gate to Paisley’s side at Stormont Castle in Belfast represents 76 miles (122 kilometres) on a road map — and an odyssey impossible to foresee on those many nights when the petrol bombs were raining down.
Editor’s note: Shawn Pogatchnik has covered the Northern Ireland conflict for The Associated Press since 1991.
Shawn Pogatchnik, The Associated Press