The Christmas and New Year period has been a busy time as Sinn Fein grappled with the DUP created Renewable Heat Incentive scandal, the allegations of corruption and fraud associated with it, and the potential half a billion loss to the North’s exchequer.The actions of the DUP have been outrageous. The refusal of Arlene Foster to step aside until a preliminary report is published effectively blocked any possibility of a robust comprehensive investigation taking place. Last Friday the Sinn Féin National Officer Board met to discuss the worsening crisis. On Sunday the Ard Chomhairle convened in Dublin and agreed on a recommendation from Martin McGuinness that the time had come for him to resign as Deputy First Minister.On Monday I spent time with Martin and our negotiating team at Stormont Castle and Parliament Buildings as we worked through the detail of the day’s events, including preparing for the publication of Martin’s resignation letter. It was a long day for Martin. He has been ill for some weeks and it has taken a toll on him. His frame is leaner and his voice weaker. Many people who haven’t seen him in a while were shocked at his appearance when he spoke to the media on Monday afternoon and announced his resignation. He made it clear that his health has nothing to do with his decision. I also know that he and his wife Bernie and their family are very grateful for the messages of support they have received. Martin is getting the very best of medical treatment. He is very resilient and will, God willing, be back to full health soon.On Monday Martin was sharp, articulate and focussed in his meeting with the journalists. He set out the reasons for his resignation in a clear and logical fashion. He said: “We in Sinn Féin will not tolerate the arrogance of Arlene Foster and the DUP. I believe today is the right time to call a halt to the DUP’s arrogance.”In response to a question Martin said that the DUP was living in a “Fool’s Paradise” if they thought that the status quo would remain unchanged and they could return to government with Sinn Fein after an election. So, Monday was a significant day for Sinn Féin and for the political institutions, but also for my friend and comrade Martin McGuinness who has led Sinn Féin in the Assembly and Executive for the last ten years. When I nominated Martin as Deputy First Minister in 2007, after we and the DUP agreed to restore the political institutions, I knew he was the right activist for the job. Sinn Féin and the DUP in the lead roles in the power sharing executive was not a partnership made in heaven – but in the other place. Challenging doesn’t begin to describe it. In 1985 at a time when unionist death squads were smashing down doors to kill nationalists and Sinn Féin members Ian Paisley had infamously posed for an election photo with a sledgehammer in hand and the threat to smash Sinn Féin.Of course they never did and now in 2007 Ian Pailsey and this former IRA leader from Derry were going to share power in the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister. Remarkably they hit it off. They became the Chuckle brothers.
Always smiling, always laughing, and always respectful to each other. Like many other Derry ‘wans’ Martin had grown up in a city in which Catholics were victim of widespread political and economic discrimination and in which poverty was endemic. Anti-Catholic sectarianism, especially around the July and August loyal order marches, was an annual feature of life. The unionist state’s violent suppression of the civil rights campaign; the Battle of the Bogside, and the emerging troubles, propelled Martin into a different kind of life.He spent time on the run and was imprisoned in Portlaoise in the 1970’s. He and Bernie and their clann have, like many republican families, been through difficult and turbulent times in the decades since then. When the British reopened the back channel of contact between it and republicans in the late 1980’s it was Martin and Gerry Kelly who took on that arduous and dangerous role. Without him I don’t think there could have been a peace process. His contribution to the evolution of republican thinking and the creation of the peace process was enormous.
When we entered into formal negotiations with the British and Irish governments after the historic cessations Martin was the obvious choice for Sinn Féin’s Chief negotiator.After the Good Friday Agreement I nominated him as Minister for Education and then in 2007 he became Deputy First Minister – an equal partner to Ian Paisley. In the decade since he has worked with two other DUP First Ministers. He has proven himself to be an able DFM and his work on behalf of victims, and for peace and reconciliation, in Ireland and internationally, has been widely applauded.He once said: “When change begins, and we have the confidence to embrace it as an opportunity and a friend, and show honest and positive leadership, then so much is possible.”Martin’s approach to all of this has been guided by the principles of mutual respect, equality and parity of esteem that underpin the Good Friday Agreement. Regrettably during most of this time, Martin, and we in Sinn Féin, have frequently faced deliberate provocation, arrogance and disrespect. Under Martin’s leadership Sinn Féin Ministers and MLAs have remained patient. Even when the DUP were behaving in a disrespectful manner we sought to make the Agreement work. It is only through the Good Friday Agreement that peace can be advanced and reconciliation is possible. As part of this Martin has met Queen Elizabeth several times. He did so very conscious of the criticism this might lead to. He said: “I was – in a very pointed, deliberate and symbolic way – offering the hand of friendship to unionists through the person of Queen Elizabeth for which many unionists have a deep affinity.”And when so-called dissident Republicans have killed British soldiers, PSNI officers or prison officers, Martin has stood firm and resolutely opposed their actions. As a result his family home in Derry has been the target of attack and his life has been threatened. Martin would be the first to acknowledge that some republicans and nationalists were discommoded by his ongoing efforts to reach out to unionists. Nonetheless these initiatives were entirely correct. As of right unionists will have an equal place with the rest of us in the new United Ireland. That work cannot wait until then. That work needs done now.The real test of leadership is to reach out beyond your base. As Mandela did, to make friends with your enemies – your opponents.
Even when the others are churlish, bad mannered or in some cases downright bigoted. That is the real test of leadership. And it is a test Martin McGuinness has passed every time.There are some, especially in the DUP, who have seen his attempts to promote reconciliation, to defend the peace process, to be generous and patient, as a sign of weakness. It is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of strength. Martin has been my friend for almost 45 years. He is a remarkable and gifted human being and a great leader and a patriot. By resigning in the face of intransigence and arrogance he has taken a huge step in defence of the peace process. In the election that will now follow the people of the North will have an opportunity to stand with Martin and the rest of us in defence of the Good Friday Agreement and against corruption, against bigotry, against disrespect and to help change the status quo. Some will say what difference will an election make? That depends on the voters. If people don’t vote or if they vote for the wrong parties then the scandal of the RHI will not be properly investigated and there will be no accountability.However, if people accept their responsibilities as citizens – if you register to vote and come out in defence of equality, unity, fairness and zero tolerance of corruption, then you will make a difference.
Just like Martin McGuinness has done.