DEPUTY First Minister Martin McGuinness has called on British people to support a campaign for a unified Ireland.
Speaking just 24 hours after his historic handshake with Queen Elizabeth, the former IRA commander said for the Peace Process to move forward, there needed to be a concerted effort by people in Ireland, in the province itself and in Britain, in what he called “a phase of reconciliation”
In an exclusive interview with the Irish Post after he had addressed an invited audience at Port Cullis House in Westminster, he also:
• Revealed why had refused to meet Her Majesty a year ago.
• Denied Sinn Féin had missed an opportunity to advance the Peace Process.
• Denied the meeting with the Queen had lost the party support from dissenting hardliners.
• Refuted suggestions that there is mistrust in Sinn Féin and in him personally.
This is the interview in full:
Where do we go from here? What needs to happen? What’s your endgame?
Martin McGuinness: We are Irish republicans, we want to see the reunification of our country by peaceful and democratic means. Obviously, the event in Belfast was seen by many people as being of enormous historical significance but it will only be of value if we can build on it.
There are people out there who believe the Peace Process is over and what we are now into is normal politics…I couldn’t disagree more. What we all need to be involved in is a phase of reconciliation on the island of Ireland and between people here in Britain. We have been involved in very important discussions with people who are unionists, protestant clergy men among them and people who agree with us that the next important phase of the Peace Process is a phase of reconciliation.
But what exactly does that mean? What exactly do you want to happen next?
We have to make an argument that Irish reunification is a reasonable thing to do when you consider that it is an island of only six million people, where you have two separate government structures.
But what exactly do you expect the British Government to do so we can make the next move?
What I would like to see is people here in Britain lobbying their elected representatives and to start thinking in the context of a reunified island in the future and how we can get to that point by not only ensuring Government to do is to continue to support the Peace Process, stop making stupid mistakes…
Such as the revocation of Marion Price’s (veteran republican), bringing her back into prison, such as…
Without wishing to demean certain people’s cases, really when you are talking about a whole Peace Process, the big picture is surely along the lines of your meeting with Queen Elizabeth? Will one or two individual cases stall the process?
It’s not going to stall the process. I went ahead with what I did (the handshake).
Why didn’t it happen a year ago?
It was decided that the time wasn’t right to do it, there were reasons for that.
Which were what?
In my opinion, Republicans on the island of Ireland weren’t ready at that time, but my own view is the visit brought about a set of circumstances, whereby those people who advised the Queen, possibly even the Queen’s family, were involved in all sorts of discussions when she came to Dublin.
The fact that she took the decision to stand in reverence in the Garden of Remembrance; the fact that she understood the symbolism around the Irish language, the fact that in her speech, she acknowledge something that had failed to be acknowledged in the past by British and Unionist politicians…
There was an opportunity to meet with her then? Is it the case that Sinn Féin missed an opportunity?
Well, people have said that, but the people who have to be the best judge of Sinn Fein’s contribution to the success of the Peace Process has to be the leadership of Sinn Fein and not those people who would wish, some for good reasons, some not for good reasons, that would wish to see a situation develop, whereby there would be division within Irish republicanism.
One of our great strengths towards our contribution to the Peace Process is our ability to communicate with our base, so it’s irrelevant to Sinn Féin the contributions of others who are making the case that Sinn Féin missed out last year.
Sinn Féin’s consideration has to be the party reasons that why, at that time, it didn’t make sense for Sinn Féin to become involved in the events of that visit.
I think many people thought that during the course of this visit, because it was the Jubilee visit, that this would also have been very difficult for Sinn Féin to meet with the Queen and there was a very thorough discussion at leadership level about this and we decided to go away and talk to our base, all around the island of Ireland.
Some people weren’t happy about it. Some people advised that it wasn’t a good thing to do. There were sizeable numbers who felt that and their views have to be respected…
Have you lost support then?
No, absolutely not. What was really gratifying about all of the meetings was that people who declared opposition said they wouldn’t leave the party and they wouldn’t support groups that would try to destabilise the Peace Process.
So far there hasn’t been any loss from the party, there has been a very mature debate and discussion, people were included and consulted, and the leadership took a decision that I would attend as Deputy First Minister.
You saw the reaction, It was very well received, everywhere, all over the island of Ireland and here.
Still there are some individuals that are not happy about it. I respect their right not to be happy about it. But we took the decision because we believed it was in the best interests of the Peace Process and the best interests of the next phase, which is a phase of reconciliation.
This is big stuff, what we are engaged in are hugely significant and important discussions
You talk about respect replacing mistrust. Do you honestly believe that to be true? Some people might think Martin McGuinness’s handshake was a great thing, but they don’t really believe him? There are people who have their doubts?
I’m actually surprised that you put it to me like that – that there are a sizeable number of people in Britain who are sceptical about the Peace Process. Because that runs contrary to the decision Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson took to enter Unionists into Government with Sinn Fein in 2007.
They must have had trust in Sinn Fein to come into Government and they must have had a trust in Sinn Fein’s electoral mandate. They recognised that Sinn Fein had become the largest voice of the nationalist community in the North.
So those people who feel like that in Britain are actually rolling behind the times.
The reality is we have made huge progress in the North of Ireland. I wasn’t there on my own, President Higgins and his wife were there Peter Robinson was also there…he’s not the sort of politician that will engage in these sorts of actions with me if he thinks he can’t trust me.
Give us a time scale?
For the ultimate goal.
The ultimate goal of Sinn Fein is to bring about the reunification of Ireland by peaceful and democratic means and it will take as long as it takes?
A Unified parliament, where would that be?
That would be the subject of some considerable negotiations between us…
Will it happen in your lifetime?
I’d like it to happen in my lifetime.
In relation to the move toward a united Ireland and the move away from Europe’s model for economic recovery, would it be conceivable that in future Ireland would need to align itself even closer to Britain economically? And would this be something Sinn Féin would encourage?
Well, there is a hugely volatile situation in Europe at the moment. Europe is undergoing a massive economic crisis. I doubt even European leaders know how it’s all going to end.
I’m a very committed European. I want to see the European Union continue, but I want to see it continue on the basis of what’s acceptable to the people of Ireland.
Quite clearly, the people of Ireland are worried and concerned about massively damaging austerity measures. Sinn Féin hasn’t advocated pulling out of the European Union, what we have advocated is a reform of the EU.
But would it not make more sense to align ourselves even closer with Britain, in light of the trade links that exist alrea?
We do have a trading relationship, but the difficulty in relation to where we find ourselves is that the North of Ireland is under the auspices of Westminister.
To have two different currencies on the island is hugely problematical for us in terms of economic advantages. That is something I would like to see corrected under the auspices of the European Union, and who knows where Britain is going to find itself in relation to the whole concept of Europe.
Were you anxious about the meeting with the Queen?
I wasn’t anxious about it at all. Not in the least. I went to the meeting as a very proud republican leader, someone who has been at the heart of this very important Peace Process.
I understood the symbolism of everything I was involved in. It was a very genuine attempt by me to extend the hand of friendship, peace and reconciliation, to the Unionist community and to do that through someone they have huge respect for.
I would hope it made a huge impression on a very sizable percentage of Unionists. There will always be a certain percentage of Unionists who are like those people that you say – and that surprises me, that are here in Britain…
There are stalwarts on the Unionist side as much as on the Nationalist side
But remember this, we have an Assembly of 108 members and only one of them is opposed to the institutions.
What did the Queen say to you?
Sinn Féin have briefed the media on that and I will never disclose what the Queen said to me, but it was a very civilised, there was nothing controversial about the discussions.
You have said you are going to step down as an MP at Parliament and there is speculation about this £50,000 pound pay-off you are entitled to claim for closing your constituency office. Can you categorically say you won’t claim it?
It’s all news to me, I don’t know anything about £50,000. I’ll wait and see if someone is going to make an offer, but I doubt if that is going to happen. And remember this, I was an MP for 15-years and never got one penny of a salary.
What will your position be in five years?
In five years I will be 67-years-of-age, I hope my health will be good and I hope the Peace Process is rock solid.
I think that over the next five years huge work will be done of a very positive nature. I hope to still be in the leadership of Sinn Féin.