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15 May 2008 Edition

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Interview : Joint First Minister Martin McGuinness, one year on from the new Executive

Fit for the challenge of government

A YEAR after the re-establishment of the political institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, including a power-sharing Executive headed by Sinn Féin and the DUP, joint First Minister MARTIN McGUINNESS speaks to An Phoblacht Editor SEÁN Mac BRÁDAIGH about the current political situation, his relationship with Ian Paisley, the critical importance of having policing and justice powers transferred from London to the Six Counties, and the ongoing campaign by elements of the Establishment against Sinn Féin Education Minister Caitríona Ruane.

ONE YEAR on from the re-establishment of the Northern Exeuctive and the other institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, joint First Minister Martin McGuinness says it has been “a remarkable year”.
“It has been a year in which we have seen the Democratic Unionist Party come into government with Sinn Féin on the basis of equality.
“Ian Paisley and I have been acting as joint First Ministers over the course of the last 12 months. Of course, the announcement from Ian Paisley that he is now to stand down as leader of the DUP and First Minister paves the way for a new leader of the DUP and a new joint First Minister.
“I’m looking forward to working with Peter Robinson and I’m determined to work with him in the same civilised spirit that I had with Ian Paisley. I want to ensure that we continue the work of making a difference to people’s lives and implementing agreements such as, for example, on the issue of the transfer of powers on policing and justice, the Irish language, the implementation of the Programme for Government, and the Investment Strategy, which has a figure of over £20 billion over the next 10 years.
“I want to ensure that we are part of an Executive that makes a difference to real people, ensuring that people on the ground actually reap the benefits of the Peace Process by seeing increasing prosperity, more and better-paid jobs, and a determined strategy on behalf of the Executive to tackle social deprivation and poverty.
“There is still a lot of work to be done. The greatest challenge of all was whether the DUP would come into government with Sinn Féin. Now that this has happened, all other problems are quite capable of resolution if there’s a will to resolve them.”
On his experience of the past year working with Ian Paisley, the republican leader says it has been memorable given that Ian Paisley and himself only “knew of each other” for three decades and in “not a very complimentary way”. Times have changed.
“The reality is that we have been in government together for the past 12 months. At a press conference the other day he addressed me as his friend and I too regard Ian Paisley in a friendly way as he and I have been engaged in a unique partnership as joint First Ministers in the North.
“Whatever I felt about him in the past, he certainly made a huge effort over the last 12 months to put in place a solid foundation stone for the future.”
McGuinness says there were a number of memorable occasions that he shared with Paisley in the past year, one of which was the first letter sent by both men. It was to tell British Direct Rule Minister Peter Hain to vacate the buildings which both men now occupy as joint First Ministers.
Commenting on Paisley’s recent trip to Cork where supporters of ‘Republican Sinn Féin’ picketed his visit, McGuinness says that people all over the island are conscious that Ireland’s national flag is that of green, white and orange. He says that Ian Paisley is a representative of the orange section of the Irish people and picketing him on his visit to Cork was a huge mistake by those involved. He repeated his remarks that Paisley has done more in recent months for national reconciliation than those involved in the likes of the Cork picket have done in years.
On the symbolism of Ian Paisley jointly opening the Boyne Visitors’ Centre last week with outgoing Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, McGuinness says:
“I thought that, symbolically, it was very important. The opening of the Boyne Centre, which recognises an important part of our history, and the sight of Orangemen there on the day and the good mood that surrounded the occasion, sent a very powerful message to everybody in Ireland about how we need to treat each other with respect in the future. That is something that all sides have a duty to reciprocate.
“The speech that particularly struck me was that made by Eileen Paisley. She clearly showed herself to be someone who has been an immense source of strength to Ian Paisley over the course of the hugely important decisions that he has taken in recent years. When I spoke at the US investment conference event in Hillsborough Castle I complimented her on what I thought was a tremendous contribution to the process that we are all presently engaged in.
“Clearly we are seeing a changing of the guard. The event at the Boyne saw the Taoiseach leave his post and Ian Paisley on the threshold of leaving his.
“The messages that resonate from the Boyne to the rest of us are to recognise that the work of reconciliation is going to take some considerable time but at long last I think we can truly say that we are on our way. Many false dawns were apparent over the course of three decades but I think that this is no false dawn. This is the real McCoy.
“The efforts being made by people in positions of political power, North and South, are clearly supported by the overwhelming majority of the Irish people, whether they support unionist parties or nationalist and republican parties.”
Responding to the suggestion that the DUP under Peter Robinson will renege on the agreement made during the St Andrew’s negotiations to transfer policing and justice powers to the North’s Executive and what role the Irish and British Governments should play in resolving the issue, Martin McGuinness says:
“I believe the DUP are getting a very powerful message from Dublin, Washington and London about the absolute necessity to ensure that those powers are transferred.
“It’s almost like when we were setting about the work of putting up the institutions: some people in society were sceptical about whether or not we would ever succeed. We were saying that it was a question of when it would happen, not if it would happen. Similarly, in relation to the issue of the transfer of powers, it really is a question of when it will happen, not if it will happen.
“It’s a matter now for both parties to buckle down to the essential dialogue and discussion required to bring that about.
“The whole issue of policing and how we move forward on policing is important. The only way we are going to achieve that is to ensure that the institutions of policing are respected by everyone. They can only be fully respected in regard to the broad nationalist/republican constituency whenever the promises that were made at St Andrew’s to have powers transferred actually take place.
“Also, from the point of view of the practicality of what is happening on the ground, who are the best people to tackle head-on the anti-social, criminal activities within society? I would contend that it is local politicians acting in conjunction with the legislative process and with the policing authorities to ensure that we are best placed to deal with the criminality that is around us and which results in the rape of young women, the robbery of shops, the brutal attacks that happen to people on weekends in relation to alcohol abuse and so forth.”
Asked about the personalised campaign in certain political and media quarters against Sinn Féin Education Minister Caitríona Ruane, Martin McGuinness says that there are vested Establishment interests involved in the current dispute who are “more interested in institutions than in children or education”. He points out:
“They have been clearly supported by elements within the media who have been trying to break our Education Minister. But my message to them is that they will not succeed. Caitríona will not allow them to succeed.
“We in Sinn Féin will not allow them to succeed because we have set out an agenda for change in education. We haven’t done that for the sake of it.
“We are doing it also because we believe that the whole issue of equality has to be something that runs right through our education system and in terms of the opportunities presented to young people.”
A former Education Minister himself who won widespread acclaim for his vision and dedication, he explains:
“It angers me greatly that there are still some people within our society who believe that testing children at the age of 11 is a good way of encouraging respect for the importance of education in the lives of young people and their families.
“No system of education can be allowed to stand that effectively elevates one third of our children and condemns the other two-thirds. The argument put forward (which appears now to be accepted by everyone) that the 11-Plus had to go and that it was a sensible decision essentially says to me that those who are arguing for another method of testing children are effectively arguing for the 11-Plus by another name.  That has to be unacceptable.
“The argument put forward by elements of the Establishment that we have one of the best education systems and the best exam results in the world is a total an absolute nonsense. We don’t have a better education system than Finland, than Korea, or than New Zealand. What we have to do is learn from the international experience and that clearly shows that testing children at the age of 11, condemning children as ‘failures’ at the age of 11, is a failed policy.”
McGuinness feels that Sinn Féin’s presence in the North’s Executive over the past 12 months has contributed hugely to the overall process of social and political change in Ireland, not so much in what has been done in those 12 months (although that has been historic) but more so in the potential that it holds for the future.
“If you remember that, up to until 26 March last year, neither Gerry Adams nor I had ever had a conversation with Peter Robinson or Ian Paisley. Now we meet them on a consistent basis. In some cases I meet Ian Paisley almost every day. Other members of the DUP are now meeting Sinn Féin colleagues on a regular basis.
“Some have still chosen not to do that but all of us are on a journey and I think that the success of the last 12 months is represented by the fact that our entire society is coming to terms with these mighty changes. In fact, I still meet people who say they have to pinch themselves whenever they see Ian paisley and I working together as we do, attending functions together as joint First Ministers in the North.
“Obviously, as Ian Paisley moves off the political scene, there falls to Peter Robinson and myself, all the other Ministers in the Executive and indeed all of the MLAs, to redouble our efforts to ensure that this process delivers for people on the ground.
“We need to be very conscious that sometimes people who are closest to history being made are the last people to fully comprehend and appreciate the enormity of all of that. But whenever I travel – as I have done to Iraq with Jeffrey Donaldson recently, or to Sri Lanka, or as others have travelled elsewhere in the Middle East and to the Basque Country – people look on at Ireland with amazement at how things have changed over the course of what is such a short period.
“They are people who are anxious to learn from us. And it’s only when you speak to those people that you realise how big an impact this has made on the world scene. It’s a world news story because it is one of the most successful peace processes in the world today.
“Hopefully, the next issues that need to be resolved between ourselves and the DUP can be resolved. The work of government will continue and I think we will continue to challenge ourselves in relation to whether or not we are delivering  or putting in place programmes that will deliver and ensure that we make a real difference to people’s lives.
“The process has made a huge difference. More needs to be done. The question is: are we working with people who are fit for that challenge? I think the coming weeks and months will answer that question.” 

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