The recent resignation of Martin McGuinness as Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister reminded me of this photo and of an extraordinary meeting I had with him, the late Ian Paisley and Miren Azkarate Villar – the former Basque Minister of Culture, Youth and Sport in late 2007.
It was toward the end of the ‘Bromance’ – arguably the most successful First and Deputy First Minister pairing to date. Two of the most significant figures in the former conflict, shared an Office and headed the Northern Ireland Executive following the St Andrew’s Agreement.
At the time, there was a lot of criticism of the ‘Chuckle Brothers’ image of the two men. Because of this, I was told by officials that we would meet the two Ministers separately – and we were shown into Dr Paisley’s office for our first conversation. After a few minutes, a smiling Martin McGuinness entered the room and sat down beside his colleague. It was an extremely weird experience. It was like sitting with two old friends who had spent a lifetime together. No sign of any tension – indeed quite the opposite. I was struck by the deep sense I got of mutual respect and even affection.
We had a great chat about youth work in the Basque Country and in Northern Ireland and about the plans we had (at the time) to pilot the WIMPS (Where Is My Public Servant?) project in Basque Country. At the end of the meeting Dr Paisley said we should take some photos – and then leaned in toward Martin and said quietly – “Don’t forget to chuckle!” followed by his characteristic raucous laugh.
It was all I could do to contain my own laughter. It was a truly remarkable and unexpected experience. Leaving the room I had two contrasting reactions. The first was a sense of what an honour it was to be here and to experience this warmth between two old adversaries. It appeared to me that both men had been on an extraordinary personal journey to reach this point.
However, I was also deeply angry. I felt that if this relationship was possible – why did we have to suffer what we suffered as a society over the previous 40 years? I’ve always felt that the Northern Ireland conflict was unnecessary. Whilst I understand the reasons for it, and have spent decades trying to understand the various perspectives of the combating parties – I don’t believe that one bullet fired or one exploding bomb was ever necessary – regardless of who fired or planted them. These two men share a heavy burden of responsibility for the creation, prosecution and perpetuation of the former conflict.
I do wonder if that office will ever be inhabited by two people with the same level of rapport and mutual respect. I certainly can’t see any prospect of that with another DUP/Sinn Féin coalition. I also think the structures will need to be radically reformed if we are to go from managing the conflict to building a truly shared society – but that is a discussion for another time.