A new pictorial book on Martin McGuinness triggers memories of many long conversations for PAT McART, who knew the republican leader for decades.
'Martin McGuinness - A Life Remembered'* pretty much does what it says on the tin. It recalls, mostly in photographs, the life of one of the major and, it has to be said, most controversial figures in recent Irish history.
It's the first book out of the traps in the wake of Martin's death earlier this year but it certainly won't be the last. And I should point out at the outset just because it is mainly pictorial - that is why it's first off the block! - it shouldn't be dismissed lightly as some kind of 'politics for dummies' type publication; far from it.
In the commentary which accompanies the superb chronological photographic record of a life lived to the full Observer/Guardian Ireland correspondent, Henry McDonald, gives a potted history, in a very concise fashion, of the key events that shaped McGuinness - from the early days of the civil rights movement on streets of Derry to the White House in Washington to the formation of the first cross-community government administration at Stormont, and to the collapsing of that administration a decade later.
As has been said on many occasions, it really was some journey.
Perusing the book I was struck by one thing more than any other, Martin's jacket. I'm not kidding. Let me explain why this important.
In the early years when I first met met him he wore the same thing day in and day out - a Donegal tweed jacket. In the plethora of media images in latter years of a suited and booted Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive surrounded by an ever present media pack and other flunkies of various hues, I had forgotten that jacket, and forgotten just how much it was part of his persona back in the day.
When I came to Section Two (which deals with the years 1982-1998) of this book - it's divided into three sections - I counted at least ten photos were he is wearing it. I felt a real affinity then - this was the Martin I knew. This was the guy I spent hours chatting to. Indeed, that jacket was like a trigger for memories of a time, a place and events that are now long gone. That was my era.
One other observation worth mentioning - back in the day I was, somehow, under the impression Martin was a lot older than me. When I first met him, in the early 1980's, he gave off the vibe of being much more mature, much more worldly than me - not that that would have been particularly difficult back then - but when I look at the photos I now see how young he was. How did he become a leader? The IRA wasn't a kindergarten for play acting. It was life and death stuff. What did he have that others saw him to give him that role at that time?
I don't recall the name of the person but he was described to me as the 'Boy General' by someone years back and it's only on looking at those pictures more than 30 years later I realise how apt that description was. For the record - Martin was just two years older than me.
As for the book itself if, as some claim, newspapers provide the first draft of history I would suggest this book is the second draft. And it is a good starting point. McDonald's introduction attempts to do a balancing act between the many facets of the Bogside man's life and, in fairness to him, he succeeds pretty well. While some of the more ardent of his supporters might disagree with some of the points raised It would be pointless to suggest Martin did not divide opinion, and the writer has not shied away from this. Who was Martin McGuinness? What was he? A terrorist, a leader of a physical force violent republicanism, a peace maker, a man of courage who brought about political reconciliation? Take your pick....There is a lot to be divided about.
He started out a hate figure, a bogey man for those in the unionists community but one they came, in an odd way, to trust. Initially his unlikely friendship with Ian Paisley stunned many, and then when he stood with the first PSNI Chief Constable, Hugh Orde and First Minister, Peter Robinson in March 2009 outside Stormont Castle to condemn the killings of two British soldiers and a policeman he crossed a rubicon for many unionists , and a rubicon of a different hue for a hell of lot more in his own community.
For many nationalists/republicans there is also division. To some he was a freedom fighter for an oppressed community living under the jackboot of unreconstructed, bigoted unionism. A hero who stood tall in the face of massive, overpowering superior forces. For others he was a terrorist who brought death, destruction and massive suffering on his own community. Our problems, they have suggested, could have been solved in other, better ways. Once again it's contested territory.
Martin died as he lived. Uncompromising. He never apologised for his role in IRA. He had worked unrelentingly to make the cross-community government at Stormont work but collapsed it when he felt that the nationalist community was not being treated with respect.
Those pictures of a gravelly ill Deputy First Minister on that cold January day doing what he believed to be right will long live in the memories of those who knew him. I honestly believe it was the last thing he wanted to do. What he had dedicated ten years of unrelenting work to building he was now knocking down. But he felt he had no choice.
If, like me, you have long held the view that there was only one Martin McGuinness this book will re-enforce that view.
*[Martin McGuinness - A Life Remembered by Henry McDonald is published by Blackstaff Press. Price £17.99]
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