Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness
Tracking down erstwhile revolutionaries for a small-town weekly paper can be an arduous endeavor. In August I traveled to Belfast to interview Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams but had to settle for a handshake and a used copy of his autobiography.Then in September, the Sinn Fein triumvirate -- Gerry, Martin McGuinness and Caoimhghin O'Caolain -- came to New York for a fundraiser. But lacking the $500 for a plate at the Waldorf, I again had to content myself with a wave and a wink -- this time from behind a cordon of exiled IRA security toughs.Finally, after two months of near daily telephone conversations -- in which I was gallingly put off for last minute meetings with Tony Blair and the U.S. ambassador -- Sinn Fein's second-in-command agreed to meet me on Nov. 14 in Boston, where he was touching down to rally support for the faltering peace process.It was a rare weekend away from Northern Ireland for McGuinness, who, as Sinn Fein's chief negotiator, has been feverishly trying to map out a negotiated settlement on nationalist terms since official talks began at Stormont Castle on Sept. 15. This is no small task before him. The unionists accuse Sinn Fein (which they call Sinn Fein-IRA) of bombing its way to the negotiating table and making unreasonable demands for a complete end to British rule. And within the nationalist community, many militants worry that Sinn Fein's leadership will agree to a partial settlement, one that further legitimizes partition.The night before our interview, I trailed McGuinness through an El Nino of a blizzard to an address at Harvard's Kennedy School and then to an Irish-American assembly at a local union hall. To both audiences, McGuinness warned that unionists were sabotaging the talks and that without an infusion of new energy the peace process could fail (warnings similar, though less stridently pronounced, to those issued by Sinn Fein before the IRA broke its last cease fire in February 1996).We met the next morning at the downtown Boston Marriott (two eggs, $12.95!!) and he reflected on the talks thus far and on Sinn Fein's level of support in the United States.Boulder Weekly: Some Irish newspapers are already calling the peace negotiations all but dead. Is this an accurate assessment?Martin McGuinness: Well, I have considerable sympathy for this point of view. At the moment, the unionists are refusing not only to negotiate but also to talk. They announced before they came into the negotiations that they were coming in to confront Sinn Fein. But after nearly six weeks, all I've been confronted with is silence. The other day I asked the unionist representatives very frankly, "Are you prepared to negotiate with us?" The answer from all of them was no. So that's the reality; the talks as they exist at the moment are not working. All of this indicates, I think, the nervousness and worry of the unionists. They are badly divided and deeply suspicious, not just of us or the SDLP [a more moderate nationalist party] or the Irish government but of what they call their own government, the British government. They are afraid to negotiate their future. All this said, I think the problem is not intractable. I believe that together we can create a dynamic and meaningful negotiating process. So we should not give up. I believe there is a possibility we can force this British government to live up to its responsibility to confront the unionists about their negativity in the talks. I believe there is a real chance to bring about fundamental constitutional change, equality and an end to domination. But if people don't see real benefits and progress soon, then the peace process will fail. Of that, there can be no doubt.BW: Besides being more persuasive at the negotiating table, how can Sinn Fein help move the talks out of crisis?McGuinness: First, I think it has to be pointed out to those who back the unionists, many of whom voted in the last election to support the peace process, that the unionist parties are negotiating in bad faith. We also have to make it clear to the British government that this type of behavior is unacceptable, that it runs contrary to the whole spirit of meaningful dialogue. But in order for the British government to compel the unionists to talk, I think there needs to be pressure from the United States and the international community. So when [British Secretary for Northern Ireland] Mo Mowlam and other British officials come here, I think it's important for Americans to voice their concerns. Now it may be that the unionist parties will refuse to negotiate despite all our best efforts. But that's important for us to know as well. We don't want to waste our time.BW: Can you appeal directly to the British electorate?McGuinness: I think if there were to be a referendum tomorrow on Britain's continued involvement in the north of Ireland that the overwhelming majority of the British citizens would support us. I believe that.BW: Sinn Fein's greatest strength comes from its ability to mobilize the nationalist community. But how much tension is there between Sinn Fein's role as a grassroots movement and its role as a political party, as a diplomatic organization?McGuinness: In the course of this process, we in the leadership have been at great pains to ensure that there is a connection between the grassroots and what is going on at the negotiating table. Within Sinn Fein we've held tremendous amounts of meetings with our support base, with political prisoners and with our middle rank of leadership in order to keep them appraised of the developments. That's ongoing.Just as important is the need to inform those outside of Sinn Fein, even outside of the nationalist community, that if the unionists don't negotiate then we've got a crisis. We have to stress that ordinary people must play a role in the search for peace. There has to be a wide base of pressure, from business and community leaders, from political leaders, from churches, unions, neighborhood organizations -- everyone needs to claim ownership of the process. We will be successful? I don't know. But we have to try.BW: Since the negotiations began there have been several resignations from Sinn Fein and reports of resignations from the IRA. How are you dealing with republican frustrations that you may not be getting enough out of the talks?McGuinness: We're trying to deal with it sympathetically and compassionately. We have known from the very beginning that this was going to be a difficult process for republicans, also for the unionists and the British government. So I think this needs to be kept in perspective. The IRA issued a statement saying a small number of volunteers had resigned. And I think we can take that as an accurate assessment, because if it were large-scale then the dogs in their sleep would be barking. A small number of people have resigned from Sinn Fein as well -- nine in County Louth, for example. Obviously that is sad and regrettable, but that too must be kept in perspective. Sinn Fein is a very large political party.What they say publicly is that they disagree with Gerry Adams affirming the Mitchell Principles of nonviolence on behalf of Sinn Fein, this puzzles me because it's been on record for over 18 months that we would have no difficulty affirming the principles once negotiations began.The real problem, though, is that those in the British establishment who remain devoted to a military agenda would like to use these disagreements to bring about a major split within republicanism. So we have to be very cautious and keep our eye on the ball.BW: Part of the dissidents' frustration, I imagine, comes from the belief that the British would never be negotiating in the first place if the Troubles hadn't come into their country at the hands of the IRA. How can Sinn Fein adhere to a non-violent agenda while still warning that a failure to move forward could result in further violence?McGuinness: The history of Ireland has always shown that if the core issues are not resolved then the seeds of conflict remain. That's a fact of life, and there's no contradiction in sayingso. At the same time we believe that the best way to avoid conflict is through negotiations. The problem is that elements of the British military and intelligence services, those who still wish to resolve the conflict by military means, are not fostering a peaceful backdrop in which to negotiate. The British are continuing to build large military installations, there are troops on the street, arrests, harassment and extradition. All of these actions send very negative signals to those we are trying to convince that meaningful negotiations can deliver fundamental political, cultural and constitutional change; that negotiations can provide equality and demilitarization. So if these negotiations do fail it should be clear to everybody that it wasn't Sinn Fein's fault. We have taken great risks for peace. If the talks fail it will because the unionists and the British government were unprepared to face up to real change in Northern Ireland.BW: Under what conditions could Sinn Fein lose faith in the peace process and seek out other means of struggle?McGuinness: We've known from the beginning that this would be difficult. But we intend to persist with our peace strategy. We believe that-if there is to be any hope of ever resolving the conflict-then the resolution has to come at the negotiating table. That's unavoidable. The British government and the unionists need to be confronted with this logical truth. We can either choose to negotiate now, a year from now or 10 years from now É But why not now? Why should more people lose their lives? Why should more people go to prison?I also think that advocacy for peace always works to our advantage -- though when we started using the word peace, it frightened the life out of a whole lot of republicans. I was probably the person within the movement who said that every other organization was using the concept like a battering ram against republicans and that we should take the word away from them. After all, we want peace as much as anyone else. The difference is that we're looking for peace with justice, peace with freedom.BW: Politically, it's important for you to stress the organizational autonomy of Sinn Fein vis-a-vis the IRA. But you also clearly draw negotiating strength from having a persuasive relationship with the IRA. How do you use your influence with the IRA to your diplomatic advantage while stressing your independence as a political party?McGuinness: Well É it's important from the point of democracy that Sinn Fein be included in negotiations based on the size of its electoral mandate alone. Many smaller parties than Sinn Fein have met with British ministers, have traveled to the White House. Still, it has to be said that the IRA and Sinn Fein share political objectives. Both want to see an end to British jurisdiction. Both want freedom for the Irish people. And both want to see a unitary state on the island of Ireland. So obviously we have influence, as the British government has influence over the British army, as the unionist parties have influence over the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The point is, all sides need to use whatever influence they have to move the process forward.BW: I think the republican movement has always occupied a peculiar position within the U.S. political scene. Sinn Fein, for example, maintains higher contacts within the U.S. government -- meeting with Clinton and so on -- than other liberation movements like the ANC or PLO ever did at this stage of decolonization. Yet republicanism has never become a cause celebre among U.S. liberals and progressives outside of its strong Irish-American base. Why do you think that is?McGuinness: I'm puzzled about that myself É I'm interested to hear your analysis. Maybe it's one of our failings. When we come to the United States, apart from speaking to political officials, much of our time is spent meeting with Irish-American groups. But as we make more trips we develop broader contacts. I think there is a growing interest. It also may be that many progressives see these flashpoint areas as immensely complicated. So there may be a reluctance to come down on one side without all of the facts.BW: It may also be that Sinn Fein is perceived as strictly a nationalist organization. And with the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, European nationalism doesn't have the greatest reputation.McGuinness: It's represented as a religious conflict even. With varying degrees of success over the years, the British have attempted to explain the situation in Northern Ireland as two fanatical tribes fighting one another.BW: You don't hear much about a socialist republic of Ireland these days. Why has Sinn Fein backed away from a socialist agenda?McGuinness: We haven't backed off. We would like to see the establishment of a 32-county socialist republic in Ireland. And we will advocate that program, that's our raison d'?tre. But at the same time we are democrats. Our objective is to bring British interference in our country to an end and then let the Irish people themselves determine their future. I would like them to do that on a socialist basis, but I have to argue that at the ballot box.We have also put forward a comprehensive equality agenda at the negotiations, because we recognize that people need to get something out of this process in order for it to be successful. There is still two and one half times greater unemployment for Catholics in the North, still no support for Irish-language education, still overwhelmingly Protestant RUC patrols through nationalist communities. These are human rights issues that shouldn't even have to be negotiated.BW: In the economic sphere, the European Union has made the domain of national sovereignty less absolute. Do you ever fear that Irish nationalists are fighting for a goal that could amount to less and less?McGuinness: I don't think it does mean less. I don't think sovereignty means anything less to the French. I mean, the initiatives of the European Union will tremendously impact all our lives, but this doesn't mean Ireland surrenders its political sovereignty. It doesn't mean we're any less Irish, any less proud to be Irish.BW: But couldn't most of your agenda be accomplished without transfer of full political sovereignty? Couldn't there be steps toward civil and economic equality, toward cultural respect, without immediate reunification?McGuinness: But that question presumes that it's possible for us to build an equal society in the context of British rule, a presumption completely foreign to all of our experiences in the past. There have been allegations that Sinn Fein will agree to an internal settlement within the North. But this is completely untrue. I have not struggled for 30 years to agree with the British government and the unionists on the continued partition of my country. I have not struggled for 30 years to allow the continuation of British rule.BW: Why should people support Sinn Fein and Irish nationalism, even if they have no ancestral stake in Ireland?McGuinness: Because we should all care if there is injustice in the world. If I hear that there is injustice in South America, or in the Middle East or Vietnam, then I have to be concerned about that as a member of the human race. I have to stand by those people who are being discriminated against, by those who have been treated unfairly. This year, for example, I met a Choctaw leader who told me how his people -- even after enduring the terrible ordeal of the Trail of Tears -- heard about the Irish famine, collected money among themselves and sent the money to Ireland. To me, there is no greater example of man's humanity to man.