I first met Martin McGuinness in 1996. I lived in London and had come late to political journalism, having written my first article in 1994 because I was horrified at the mostly wimpish coverage of the IRA in the Republic.
I soon found out that there were some Irish journalists who were scared of physical attack, others who were toeing the establishment line that nothing should be said that might upset northern nationalists, and yet more who had fallen for Sinn Fein propaganda.
So I began writing for the Sunday Times and Sunday Independent, whose proprietors and editors were happy to have terrorists called terrorists.
To be “unhelpful to the peace process” had become establishment Ireland’s new taboo, and I had to adapt quickly to hostility, threats and — much worse — the loss of some friends.
I settled down at the Sunday Independent under the editorship of Aengus Fanning, a man of great physical and moral courage who let people like me, Eoghan Harris and Eilis O’Hanlon write what we liked.
I’ll always be grateful to him and to the proprietor Tony O’Reilly, who told me many years later that he’d been under incessant pressure from politicians and diplomats to fire me because I so much annoyed Sinn Fein.
When I was invited in autumn 1996 to go to Cork and appear on RTE’s Questions And Answers along with some southern Irish politicians and McGuinness, I was still pretty new to broadcasting and all too aware that — like the rest of the republican leadership — McGuinness had received sophisticated media training, had no scruples about telling lies and made excellent use of Orwellian language and the peace-babble that had become fashionable.
I knew I’d been asked because I’d been covering the mayhem over Drumcree and Orange parades in general, and accusing Sinn Fein of
fomenting it to destabilise the province, undermine the SDLP and bring about David Trimble’s political demise.
But someone had to do it, so I went.
I was not pleased when I was shepherded into a hospitality room containing just McGuinness and two silent heavies.
He strode across to me, smiled and said: “Nice to meet you, Ruth. Mitchel (McLaughlin, then chairman of Sinn Fein) told me you were in Derry recently.”
We shook hands and engaged in agonisingly boring small talk about how we’d got to Cork until — to my relief — a Fine Gael and Fianna Fail politician turned up.
I shared with the three of them a story I’d recently heard about Kitty Kiernan, who had been engaged to Michael Collins when he was assassinated in 1922.
She’d gone on to have an unhappy marriage to one of Collins’s comrades, who apparently when drunk was given to wailing: “Jaysus, Mick had the best of her.”
Both southern politicians
collapsed in laughter (it’s the way that I tell them) and a stony-faced McGuinness showed no reaction whatsoever.
In his world there could be no laughter about anything to do with Irish republicanism.
I had hoped even a southern Irish audience might be receptive, since after the IRA’s 18-month “cessation” they’d gone back to murder and destruction, had blown up Canary Wharf and gunned down Garda Jerry McCabe, but loathing of Orangemen had trumped all that.
It was quite clear that McGuinness’s brazen lies were working in the media.
When he finally demanded to know how I would deal with what was happening in Northern Ireland, I said I’d start by interning him and Gerry Adams.
An old lady came up afterwards to tell me I should be ashamed of myself.
When she was out of earshot, the man hovering nearby said: “Sorry about my mother. I’m a garda and everything you said is true.”
McGuinness and I shook hands again, this time without smiling.
But I have to hand it to him.
Next time we met he bounded over to the small group of journalists I was with and said: “So you’ve brought my number one fan.”
He was a serial mass murderer who destroyed many thousands of lives, but he had style.
I’ll write soon about that meeting, and about my encounter with Gerry Adams... who didn’t.