Much will be written in the coming days about Martin McGuinness, the putative leader of the militant Irish Republican Army during the 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland, who died Tuesday — eulogies that will bring tears to some and fury to others. Was he an Irish revolutionary in the mold of Michael Collins, who ruthlessly conducted Ireland’s War of Independence against the British between 1918 to 1921 and is now a hallowed member in our pantheon of national heroes, or was he a cold-blooded murderer who ordered numerous killings during what we euphemistically call “The Troubles’’? Your choice depends on your politics.
I had numerous encounters with McGuinness over a 20-year period. He was always polite — he had a soft charm, a gentle, ululating Derry accent, a calculated insouciance that belied the steel of intent; he was laid back but coiled for action. He led the IRA’s Sinn Fein delegation to the 1997 talks with key South African negotiators in South Africa, convened by the late President Nelson Mandela, and was the first to acknowledge that what he learned from the South African experience was “a game changer,’’ a key factor paving the route to the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement in 1998.
He and Mandela became fast friends, something McGuinness would often allude to in later years, as if the seal of Mandela’s approval vindicated his own deadly actions. In 2007, he and Cyril Ramaphosa, Mandela’s chief negotiator and now South Africa’s vice president, led delegations of key Northern Irish and South African negotiators in talks with Iraq’s leaders. The agreement they helped forge — the 2008 Helsinki Agreement, which committed all Iraq’s leaders to a peaceful transition — was a landmark agreement at the time. But those incidents are just part of the recitation of a litany of McGuinness’s accomplishments.
What I recall most is his recounting of his relationship with the Rev. Ian Paisley, his former sworn enemy, to some 90 delegates at a conference in Belfast on divided cities in October 2014. He had agreed to give a 15-minute presentation, but he stayed for an hour and talked only of his relationship with Paisley, who had died the previous year, how their friendship had developed, and how much it had meant to him.
For 30 years of the conflict in Northern Ireland, the ultra-hardliner Paisley relentlessly excoriated the IRA, and McGuinness in particular, as the epitome of evil. He said McGuinness was a vile and vicious murderer of ordinary decent Protestants, a man with only a future in hell. But when Paisley became first minister of Northern Ireland and McGuinness became deputy first minister, under the terms of the peace agreement, the two had to work together, and what was a negotiated arrangement evolved slowly into a warm and vibrant friendship that helped the peace agreement gain traction on both sides of the divide.
They were referred to jocularly as “the chuckle twins.” They took the hard edges off the peace agreement, gave it the embrace of acceptance and of a coming together of their once warring communities. Necessity became virtue.
As I listened to him that Friday afternoon, the soft lilt of his voice holding our silence, the ebb and flow of his words mingling in cadence, I heard how ancient tribal differences can find a home in minds that open themselves to the understanding that there can be no lasting peace without forgiveness; that forgiveness is a state of mind that endows the beliefs of others, different though they may be from yours, with the same certitude as your own; that my right to my aspirations has no divine priority over yours; that righteousness is the narcissism of small differences, and the stuff of murder when we assert it in the name of a holy nationalism.
Wherever I do “reconciliation” work in divided societies, I tell that vignette about McGuinness, sitting among 90 strangers, but in truth sitting alone, recalling how his relationship with Paisley slowly evolved from the detritus of a conflict that had marked them as enemies for 30 years to a warm and generous friendship and how much he missed him. It rekindles my belief that bridging the vast chasms that often divide troubled people is possible, will indeed one day take shape, that the most intractable conflict is only intractable until one hand reaches out to another’s, that the essence of our humanity is a mysterious thing, but magical.
It gives me hope.
Padraig O’Malley is the John Joseph Moakley Distinguished Professor of Peace and Reconciliation at the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
Correction: An earlier version of this column misidentified the Irish Republican Army.