12 January 2006 Edition
The lessons of history
Interview - Sinn Féin Chief Negotiator Martin McGuinness
State papers released over the New Year threw a spotlight on political events in Ireland and Britain during 1975. One of the key events of that year in the Six Counties was a cessation of military operations by the IRA. Here in an exclusive interview with An Phoblacht leading republican Martin McGuinness looks back at this event and the lessons learned from the period by Irish republicans
An Phoblacht: 1975 and 2005 at first glance were very similar in that both featured initiatives by the IRA and political efforts to establish power-sharing institutions in the North. But of course there are crucial differences between then and now. What are those differences in your view?
Martin McGuinness: "The situation in 1975 differed fundamentally from the situation republicans found themselves in in the early 1990s, for the simple reason that republicans had learned many of the lessons of what happened during the '75 cessation and recognised that in 1975, as some of the state papers have actually admitted 30 years later, was a stringing out process by a British Government that wasn't serious about dealing with the causes of conflict by facing up to all of the issues that lay at the heart of that conflict.
"Whenever we went into the situation that developed from the late '80s early '90s onwards, we were very, very conscious not to make any of the mistakes that were made during 1975. Remember at the beginning of this latter process there was an attempt by the British Government to try and engineer the same sort of situation that existed in 1975, which we resisted. And you had the more meaningful process of the Hume/Adams dialogue which culminated effectively in nationalist and republican Ireland issuing the British Government and the unionists with a challenge to engage in a process of meaningful negotiations. It didn't happen until 1998 but it did happen. And from that we had the Good Friday Agreement which was an All-Ireland Agreement and which saw the need for unionists to sign up to power sharing with nationalists and for the likes of Ian Paisley and David Trimble to agree to sit on an All-Ireland Ministerial Council with the Taoiseach and ourselves and others.
"Essentially the big difference was that rather than engage in a meaningless stringing out process with the British Government with a promise of talks we decided on a fundamentally different approach and that was to present a challenge to both the British Government and the unionists which would have them agreeing to deal with all of the issues at the heart of the conflict. And of course the challenge that we posed to British Prime Minister John Major wasn't taken up and it wasn't until 1997, whenever Blair became British Prime Minister that we saw the British Government seriously dealing with the need for a meaningful negotiations process.
"It is certainly my view that if we had opted for the first proposition, the one that the British wanted to contrive as if you like, a continuation of 1975, then we probably would never have achieved the Good Friday Agreement."
McGuinness said that in the early 1990s the British Government had made a similar offer to republicans as had been taken up by the republican leadership in 1975. "Sinn Féin went to the IRA and asking them to for a period of quiet. The IRA said that they were prepared to bring that about if the British Government were to bring about meaningful negotiations. But whenever we informed the British Government that the IRA were prepared to do that, the British Government ran away from their own proposal."
McGuinness said that one of the downsides of the situation within republicanism at that time was that an awful lot of people were kept in the dark. "The lesson that republicans learned in the 1990s was that the most important constituency that you negotiate with is your own. It wasn't there during the course of the 1975 ceasefire and I think that caused and I think that did cause an awful lot of confusion and anger within republicanism."
On the so-called 'incident centres' set up by the British across the North in 1975 and staffed by republicans McGuinness said they were meant to be places whereby people could report breaches of the cessation by British forces and that there would ten be some process of mediation set up between republican leaders and elements within the British Government but that essentially they were more cosmetic than anything else.
Although he thinks that the 1975 ceasefire was a sincere attempt by republicans at the time to find a way forward in resolving the conflict, the same could not be said about the British: "I think that their own papers have shown that the British were not involved in a serious attempt to resolve the conflict but were involved in an initiative which was designed to have a military affect, a detrimental military affect on the IRA as opposed to a resolution of the causes of conflict.
"During the course of the cessation you had all sorts of breaches by the British Government and one of the more serious being the arrest of Shane Paul O'Doherty in Derry who was during the course of that period taken to England, charged and sentenced to a very lengthy period of imprisonment.