Benji Clarke sits down with deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness to talk about his reflections on leadership
1. How did you get to where you are today?
I have been very interested in politics for much of my adult life. I became politicised during the course of the civil rights protest in Derry. As a result of the conflict, I found myself in the IRA. Within the context of Republicanism, I’ve always understood the importance of building Sinn Fein as a political party. I stood my first election in 1982, 30 years ago. During all of that period I set about the process of building Sinn Fein as a political party. Over the last 20 years, I have been associated with trying to develop a peace process within Sinn Fein. I successfully managed to do that: I got the IRA to call a cease fire in 1994, which has led to this fantastic transformation in Northern Irish politics.
I was privileged to be appointed Sinn Fein Chief Negotiator during the good Friday, St Andrews and Hillsborough negotiations. I have always been interested in local, national and international politics.
2. Who was the most influential person in your life, and why?
My Parents. I was blessed with fantastic parents. My father was an ordinary working man, but a very good and religious man. He always appreciated everyone’s religion. His best friend in Derry was a member of the protestant community. They worked together on the Foyles road. The two of them would walk together each morning to work. They were like brothers. Their relationship, one a protestant and one a catholic, had a large influence on me. It inspires me each day to face down sectarian and racism in our society. I aim to bring about a situation in our society where each person can move forward with respect for one another.
3. What were you doing when you you’re my age?
At 21, I was in Derry city. The people had risen up against the British army. I was involved in the IRA when I was 21. I was very much involved in the ‘Free Derry’ situation, where we tried to the best of our ability to keep the forces of the state out of Derry.
Looking back, There is absolutely nothing glorious or romantic about being involved in a conflict. It is terrible. People lose their lives. Many people on all sides lost their lives. My close personal friends lost their lives at the hands of the British army. When I was 21 I was in the IRA, part of free Derry.
4. What is your favourite past time?
My all time favourite hobby is fly fishing. I am sports mad! I love all kinds of sports. I like to play chess and read. However, to pick one thing, I like to get out onto a river and fly fish for salmon or trout.
It is a total contrast from the hectic and busy lifestyle that I lead. I can get away from it all and practise the art of fly fishing with close friends: there is nothing more wonderful. In relation to fly fishing, I love to fish at night, in the dark. Sea trout have fantastic eyesight, so it is the best time to catch them. I had a fantastic experience a couple of years ago.
5. If there was one thing you could change about the Northern Irish political system, what would it be?
As an Irish Republican, I want to see the eventual reunification of Ireland. However, I want that to happen by purely peaceful and democratic means. In the mean time, whilst we continue to work towards that objective, I want to continue with the progress that has been made. I want to resolve the problems that exist, and bring people together. I want to be part of the next step in the process: a sincere, meaningful and genuine process of reconciliation.
6. What advice would you give to a university graduate from Ireland or Northern Ireland?
If their interests were political, I would encourage them to learn as much as they could about the history of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and the process that we are engaged in. They should talk to all the parties, and make up their own mind about which party suits them best.
If their interests lie elsewhere, I think the advice I would give is to believe in themselves. It is important that people believe that they can do nearly anything with their lives, if they are focused and they work hard. That is very important. I will bring you back to a fishing anecdote:
When I learned to fly fish I was given a book written by Hugh Folkas, a definitive Fishing author. One sentence in his book struck me, and I have applied it to nearly everything that I do. He said: “when you go to fish for a salmon, you really have to believe that you are going to catch a salmon.” I have applied that to the peace process: achieving the IRA ceasefire; to getting involved in the negotiations; to believing that we could achieve a successful outcome; to believing that we could get the DUP to come into government with Sinn Fein. I think that if people believe in themselves, the can do almost anything.
7. In what ways, and to what extent, has the decades of peace and the urgent requirements of a global financial crisis unified the goals of political enemies to contribute to building a successful Northern Ireland?
The last thing that we expected when Sinn Fein and the DUP made an agreement in 2007 to go into government together was that, within a year, we would be faced with the worst economic crisis that we have ever seen. I think that does have the effect of either dividing people or bonding them together. In our case, it has bonded us together. We use all the resources that we have available for the betterment of the people that we represent.
Several years ago, we embarked on a strategy of inward investment. Some of our political opponents said that it would be a waste of time, because of the economic situation. It was their view that investors wouldn’t invest, and certainly wouldn’t invest here, in the North. However, we have been spectacularly successful in attracting the New York Stock Exchange, Chicago Mercantile, Citigroup, Allstate, HBO and Universal to come to the north and, for example, make Game of Thrones which is made on location in the North and employs over 700 people.
I think we have brought in 1000s of New jobs. We have recently been to India. We are going to China before the end of the year. What we have to do is to go out, and believe that we can attract people to come here, but also increase the levels of exports from here to abroad. There is a massive export market in both China and India, which we hope to develop.
8. How can Northern Ireland sell itself, given the bleak economic climate? What unique selling points are there to allow us to stand out to international investors?
What we have to offer, is evidence by the fact that Many US companies have come here on the basis that we are English speaking; we have a highly educated workforce; we provide a near shore location to the European market; we are cost competitive in terms of running costs and premises. We have a lot to offer. Companies have not only come to Northern Ireland, but stayed here and reinvested because their operation is so successful. Our levels of staff retention are fantastic: we have a very loyal workforce. We have a great package to put to people, and one that has a proven track record. What we are now trying to do is expand that into the Chinese and Indian markets.
9. Do you think that a strong unionist and nationalist party act as counterproductive to developing an integrated, undivided society?
Whenever Sinn Fein and the DUP went into government together, many thought, how could this work? The evidence of the last 5 years shows that it has worked. I was part of an administration from 1999-2002 under the leadership of the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists which collapsed three times. We haven’t had any collapse at all. We have gone from strength to strength. I have the ability, as does Peter Robinson and Ian Paisley before him, to develop good, positive working relationships with people. We understand the importance of delivering for the people that we represent and we lead by example.
This doesn’t solve all the problems. There is still sectarianism in our society. There are still people who would like to plunge us back to the past. There are also racists within our society. People who have a very negative agenda. We have to remain firm, and continue to tackle the issues that need to be resolves against the backdrop of knowing that we have done outstandingly well: putting together two programmes for government; attracting inwards investment; making all sorts of very important appointments without any contention at all.
We have to move in a way, that shows that the agreements we have made work for people. What people are facing now is a very severe, economic crisis. What we need to focus on is how we deliver front line services, cost competitively. We need to ensure that we provide proper education and health services. We need to give leadership and show that if we are divided, we are very weak. If we are united, we can be very strong.
10. As a Republican, how comfortable are you with helping to build a strong Northern Irish state?
When I sign up to agreements, I keep my word. I have kept my word on the GFA, the St. Andrews Agreement and the Hillsborough agreement. Everyone knows that I am an Irish Republican and I am working very much towards achieving a united Ireland. In the mean time, it is no contradiction in my view to be involved in institutions built on equality and power sharing. It is by continuing to develop those processes and showing everyone in our society that, despite of our previous differences, have the ability to work together to build a better future for them. The big issue that faces us at the moment is the economic circumstances that people are working under. The more we improve economic circumstances, North and South, the more conducive it is to Irish reunification. But only by peace and democratic means.
We have been successful by uniting Northern Irish people behind the peace process. There is overwhelming support in every one of the 32 counties for the peace process and these political arrangements. The strength of that mandate is what keeps us strong. That is what people want. That is democracy.
11. Who, from your natural political opponents, do you respect the most, and why?
Peter Robinson. We don’t agree about everything, but he has made an enormous contribution to the situation we see today. Many people thought is impossible, but it is only because he and I have managed to develop a good working relationship that this place [Stormont] is working. If he and I were not able to work together, these institutions would not be here.
He has been through his own trials and tribulations. There was a period when people thought he would not come through, because of personal difficulties. I, at that time, thought that that would have been a disaster. I tried to assist at that time, by being very commonsense and sensible about how we dealt with that, from our perspective. Thank God for the process, as he came through it and we continue to work together doing the best we can, in a good spirit, in very difficult economic perspective to deliver for our people.