If you have never visited the Stone Fort of Grianán of Aileach on the Inishowen peninsula you are missing one of the most spectacular locations on the island of Ireland. I have been there many times. Standing on the five-metre-high, four-metre-thick walls you have an amazing panoramic view. On one side you can see Derry City in the distance. Grianán also overlooks Inishowen, Inch Island and there is a dramatic view of Lough Foyle and especially Lough Swilly.
It was one of Martin McGuinness’s favourite places in the world. He would walk there, no matter the weather, and whenever the opportunity presented itself. I walked there with him on many occasions. It is a place of quiet beauty.
On March 25th the ‘Chieftains Walk’ (Siúlóid an Taoisigh) in memory of Martin McGuinness will take place. Martin’s family are asking people to join them in this walk as a way of raising awareness about amyloidosis – the genetic disease from which he died. All proceeds will go to the Cancer Centre at Altnagelvin Hospital. I will be there and I hope to see many of you there also.
The walk will also be an opportunity to remember our friend Martin, whose first anniversary is on March 21st and to reflect on his life and contribution to the struggle for freedom and unity.
It is important to remember that Martin was a teenager back in the 1960s. Like hundreds – thousands – of others he was not a dedicated political activist. Just a young man living through what were unusual and turbulent times in the north.
Martin was born in 1950 into a Unionist controlled Orange State. A state that did not want him, his family, his community. Over five decades it had ruthlessly imposed a system of discrimination and inequality in employment and housing against the nationalist community. Derry suffered more than most during this time.
The civil rights movement was born out of this injustice and a demand for fairness and equality and human rights. Derry was in the vanguard of this campaign for justice. Partition, which had cut Derry off from its natural hinterland, made no sense.
The violent response of the Unionist regime and its paramilitary forces, and the militarization of the situation by the British government, set the scene for the decades of conflict which followed.
It was into this maelstrom that a young Martin McGuinness and many other Derry wans bravely stepped. It was this Martin McGuinness - young, idealistic, courageous, a leader – who I met for the first time behind the barricades in Derry. His politics were shaped by the Derry experience, by his love of Derry and by his mother Peggy’s homeplace in Inishowen.
There was a ready warmth in his smile. A genuine openness and a pleasant, unpretentious personality. In the years that followed Martin and I shared many adventures and memorable times. Some funny, some not.
It was a time of great hurt and loss. Many people, including children, died. Fine republican men and women were killed during the years of war and it fell to Martin and I on many occasions to speak at the gravesides of fallen comrades.
During the battle of the funerals I remember him in Milltown Cemetery - when we were surrounded by lines of battle wielding, riot clad RUC men –telling everyone to turn round and face them. To look them in the eye. Not to be afraid. To remember that they were the oppressors and that it was we who desired freedom and justice.
When Michael Stone attacked the Gibraltar funerals 30 years ago this month Martin was there helping the wounded, bringing calm to a dangerous situation. He was fearless.
Over more years of struggle than I care to remember Martin was there. It was he who was our representative in the secret talks with the British government in the early 90’s. When the first Sinn Féin delegation met the British at Parliament Buildings in December 1994 it was led by Martin. When the first republican delegation visited Downing Street in December 1997 there was Martin. He was our Chief negotiator – the man who sat across the table from British Prime Ministers and Ministers and Unionist representatives and argued for change.
He could also be funny and insightful. In December 1997 as we returned from our first meeting with the British in Downing Street we found ourselves waiting in the lounge at Heathrow Airport. A contingent of Unionist MPs, including the former leader of the UUP James Molyneaux, arrived into the departure lounge. The Unionists were still not talking to us. Hadn’t said a word to us in the negotiations. They were clearly displeased to see us and ignored our greetings. ‘Hello’ ‘How ya doing’– nothing. When they got on the plane they still refused to talk to anyone.
‘If they had any real principles’ Martin told me with a smile, ‘they would have got another plane. Isn’t it funny what people will do when they have to?’
Several years later in 2002 and sitting in Tony Blair’s inner office in Downing Street Martin forcefully told the British Prime Minister not to invade Iraq. Martin told him that if he thought the war in Ireland was bad invading Iraq would be so much more. We both urged Blair to turn back from what would be a disastrous course for the people of that region and for Britain. Blair ignored us.
Fast forward four years to July 12 2006. Speaking at an Orange march Ian Paisley declared that ‘No unionist who is a Unionist will go into partnership with IRA-Sinn Féin. They are not fit to be in partnership with decent people. They are not fit to be in the government of Northern Ireland. And it will be over our dead bodies that they will ever get there …”
Less than a year later in March 2007 the same Ian Paisley joined Martin and I in a press conference at Parliament Buildings to announce we had a deal. In May that unlikely partnership of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness was complete when they became joint First Ministers. Within days their willingness to meet as equals and in friendship and good humour was producing political results and building public confidence. None of it would have been possible without the patience and tenacity of Martin. He saw beyond the slagging words – the caustic comments – and stayed focused on making peace.
In the years that followed Martin made a remarkable personal and political journey, first with Paisley, then with Peter Robinson and then with Arlene Foster.
He remained a steadfast republican, unbowed and unbroken throughout his life of activism. He never deviated from his republican principles; his belief in the unity of the Irish people in a free, independent, united Ireland; or in his humanity. He always did his best – he gave it one hundred percent.
He was a decent man, a loving husband and father and grandfather, a family man who loved walking the hills, reading poetry and occasionally producing poems of quality and vitality and warmth. Martin was also a friend who stayed true during the good times and bad times. He died last March from amyloidosis. I miss him every day.
So join us and Bernie and the McGuinness clann on The Chieftain’s Walk on March 25th at Glenowen in Derry at 1.30.
By the way – and Martin would enjoy this – I contacted Andrew McCartney for advice on how to register for the walk. Given my aversion to computers I asked him where there any shortcuts in the registration process. “Yes’ he said. “There’ll be arrangements to walk part of the way and get on a bus or join it en route. We could also arrange for your car to pick you up. You could just jump into that when you want.” That’s Derry wans for you.
Every registered participant in The Chieftains Walk will receive a bespoke commemorative medal. Entry fee is £10 and you can register via the Chieftains Walk Facebook page or online at https://register.primoevents.com/ps/event/TheMartinMcGuinnessChieftainsWalk