I’ve just heard that Martin McGuinness has passed away and I reckon that as the tributes and plaudits flow in there will be some people for whom these messages will be difficult to hear. I understand that. These are some quick thoughts from the kitchen table even as I listen to the news.
I was at a meeting just last week when we got a very strong indication that he would be passing soon and we spoke at length about the man and his legacy. One of our number, a clergyman, wondered if he could attend his funeral, that a funeral is to mark the whole of a person’s life. Given the amount of pain he caused in the first half of his life it would be difficult for this particular gentleman to, by his presence, mark that part of the Martin McGuinness’s life.
The conversation, as you can imagine, was lively and stayed with me for several days. I met Martin McGuinness several times but it’s the first and last times I encountered him that left a mark, and in some ways I like to think they are emblematic of the arc of his own life.
Many years ago I was on a charter flight from Belfast to Krakow in Poland. Also on board were Martin and Gerry Kelly. It was a trip to Auschwitz, for people involved in some way in peace building in NI, organised by the NI Jewish community. When we arrived at the camp the two Sinn Fein politicians waited for a local photographer who joined them on the walk and they had their photos taken under the famous Arbeit Macht Frei gate, and underneath various watch towers etc. It was a bit tasteless and felt exploitative to be honest and I was angry.
At the end of the visit we were waiting for a shuttle bus to take us to Birkenau and I was sitting on a low wall. Martin came over and sat beside me and introduced himself. Somewhat incongruously he and Gerry were wearing suits and ties and he opened his jacket to reveal that the bic pen that had been clipped into the breast pocket of his shirt had leaked all over his shirt. He lamented the dangers of using cheap writing implements.
He then asked me what I thought of the camp. I don’t remember what I said, but he said to me, “Isn’t it awful Glenn, what some people will do to other human beings in the name of an ideology?” Still angry from the photograph thing, and aghast at the apparent insensitivity of the man, I didn’t reply.
The last time I met him was just last summer in Derry in my role with the Law Centre. We were hosting an information day for some of the Syrian refugee families who had just arrived in the city. He came to welcome them and give an address. There were no media outlets, and just the Law Centre camera but he insisted on spending time with each person and with the group. I had my photo taken with him several times that day, me with him holding a Syrian baby, the two of us with a Syrian family and so on. Lots of smiles, chats and playing with children.
He was brilliant and really seemed to enjoy the encounters We chatted at length about his commitment to welcoming these families to NI and to Derry and to making them a part of the community. But it was his address that struck me the most. At the end of his words he said a most un-politician thing. He told the group they were welcome in Derry and then he said, and I quote directly,
“you are welcome here and we love you as our brothers and sisters.”
It was genuine, and moving and heartfelt and deeply impressive. The most generous thing I heard from any politician here in relation to the resettlement programme.
So I wonder about what my friend said about marking this man’s life. It seems to me that life has a trajectory, there is a start, a middle and a finish and time moves us inexorably towards a destination. Though I’m no philosopher, it seems to me that this quality of time is what makes repentance possible. So I believe that, as the writer of the Hebrews says, “today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your heart as you did in the rebellion (the past).” (Heb 3:15) The past can be atoned for, that how we finish is more important than how we begin.
“For you were once darkness,” says Paul, “but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light.” Again, the past can be left behind. Now I don’t know about Martin McGuinness’s personal faith, though I hear that he was a daily mass goer and faith was an important part of his life. What I can say, in my brief encounters with him, was that he was a warm man, good with people and that he undoubtedly took steps to reach out to those who were his previous enemies.
He did some terrible things, of that it appears there is no doubt. But he had moved. He had changed. And we must acknowledge that. I suspect people would be saying altogether different things about him if the trajectory of his life had been in the opposite direction, if he had started out as a peacemaker and then became a violent paramilitary. But it is because of the direction his life took that we can say good things about him and we should.
Go ndéana Dia trócaire ar a anam dhílis