Meeting terrorist leaders is a strange experience. I should know, having met, interviewed and shadowed more than my fair share.
So I watched Tony Blair being interviewed by the always-excellent Andrew Marr last night with particular interest to see what he’d say about the Northern Irish Peace Process. I reported on this heavily and was the only journalist to get access to Gerry Adams en-route to Downing Street.
At one point Tony Blair was asked about his dealings with Northern Ireland paramilitary/terrorist (pick your term) leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. Marr asked him about the fact he seemed to find the two men something akin to ‘Okay…’ Blair paused, visibly took a deep breath and answered, ‘Yes…’
I admired this.
I’ve met innumerable leaders from the dodgy-end of the spectrum who in theory I should have detested. Meeting them changed my mind. I am not saying I sign up to the causes and past-crimes or misdeeds, but once in a while – for better or worse – it is a fact these guys have more to them than meets the eye. And when you meet them you sense it and you’d be an idiot not to weave it into your work. I once read a report on McGuinness which (I paraphrase) mentioned that he, ‘Was good officer material’. It was written by MI5.
Anyway, here’s my Esquire article on him. Researching it was an experience and a half… If only to see the IRA’s ‘Boy General’ visibly flinch when I told him I knew he’d visited Cleland, North Lanarkshire, Scotland in 1968 and, as his mouth dropped open, I was able to name the family he’d stayed with and the street they lived in. For one awful moment, he clearly thought I was part of the UK’s Security Service.
In truth, my mum went to the village RC parochial hall bingo with the woman in question and one of my sisters remembers McGuinness attending local Mass.
Fact is always stranger than fiction.
And thanks to Simon Tiffin, former Esquire editor for backing this risky assignment, Features-Editor Shaun Philips for some world-class editing of my over-reaching prose and finally, William Cherry, Belfast-photography legend, for visibly not-flinching when McGuinness took me on a tour of the Stormont parliament to show me the rooms he knew 100% were, er, bugged.