Only weeks after the death of Martin McGuinness, the Northern Ireland paramilitary and politician, we see The Journey hit the silver screens…
It’s a movie which seeks to describe how two men who hated each other viscerally - McGuinness and Ian Paisley - came to work together in government - and become friends.
I actually think that stranger ‘conversions’ have taken place in history.
After all, lasting peace often requires those on the extremes of any argument to come together and compromise. South Africa (which I partly covered at the same time as Northern Ireland) comes to mind.
I met the Reverend Ian Paisley first, in 1989. We sat on the edge of a double bed in a quiet hotel room in County Antrim. And for some reason I blushed at the setting. Then he shifted nervously. And then we composed ourselves and began the interview.
I was delighted and terrified. He and Gerry Adams (and Martin McGuinness, too) were the faces of the Northern Ireland conflict. And here was I talking to the man with the voice of an angry giant.
And he did tear into me, from time to time. I soon learned never to quote from the Bible to him - about brotherly love, for example - as he knew it better than anyone, and could always find a passage to accord with his trenchant views.
Generally, before and after any interview, The Doctor was warm, friendly and felicitous. Teetotal, like McGuinness, but hospitable. At least once he described Catholics as vermin, but I know of Catholic constituents who would praise him for working hard on their behalf.
Yet his hands were metaphorically, or indirectly, steeped in blood.
Over the years I spoke to people clearly driven towards violence through his words. One Loyalist killer described “joining up to kill for Paisley”. A Republican described joining the IRA in anger at Paisley’s actions. Both were prominent in their movements, and both killed, feeling justified in doing so.
One night, I sat with a cup of tea in my hand in Ian Paisley’s kitchen, waiting for midnight. It was Sunday, and the rule was “no interviews on the Lord’s Day”. Eventually the great man emerged, as pink as a lobster, from the sauna. “I’ve had a hard day’s preaching!” he said. And I believed that’s how it was too : he put his heart and soul (obviously) into his mission.
And that, I think, is one of the reasons he eventually threw himself heart and soul into working with Martin McGuinness. He sought repentance, he saw it when Sinn Fein (the political wing of the IRA) agreed to work within the field of politics alone, and he tendered forgiveness in response. No strained forgiveness either.
But alongside, the stronger undertow which pulled Paisley along all his life was this : ambition. Here was a man who had founded his own church and founded his own party. In short, he fancied being Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. To replace the men he’d hounded out of office for compromising in the 60s, 70s and 80s.
Martin McGuinness’s connection with murder and bombing was more direct.
The fine details are disputed, but there’s certainty that he was from time to time the most senior IRA commander, and in charge of internal discipline. Enemies and traitors alike died either at his hands or at his direct command. He would have looked into the eyes of his victims as he decided their fate.
When they twinkled with humour, Martin McGuinness’s eyes were as warm as sunshine. And when you irritated him with your line of questioning, they were as cold as pale blue ice.
Something in-between happened when I worked for a few weeks up at BBC Radio Foyle in the North West. He staggered in on crutches, and up some stairs for a studio interview, when I spotted him. He had been injured playing Gaelic football.
At the time, Sinn Fein was being accused, afresh, of sanctioning ‘punishment beatings’ of drug dealers. Watching him struggle up the steps, I called out “Looks as though you caught a bit of punishment yourself, there…!” He smiled. A little tight smile.
McGuinness’s reasons for being so jolly alongside Paisley were just as extraordinary - but much more straight forward. Identified by British intelligence from the earliest times as a “thinker” he always had a plan which might indeed end up with his putting on a suit and becoming a politician instead of a aran-sweater wearing gunman.
The pathway had had a lot more curves on it than he’d imagined as a foot-solider in the early days. But here was the fairly comfortable outcome of a campaign - both violent and also political - which he’d signed up to. His harder task was to convince his membership that sitting down with Paisley was not a sell-out.
For Paisley, it was his conscience he had to settle.
I’ll leave the analysis there, but end with a final anecdote which comes from a new acquaintance, who in the 1970s was in the RAF, serving in Northern Ireland. Ironically a place he’d been desperate to leave just years earlier. He described how he could see footprints crossing a field towards arms dumps - using infra-red technology - even days after paramilitaries had been in the area.
One afternoon, hovering over Derry/Londonderry, he spotted Martin McGuinness, chased by police, darting into a terraced house. Minutes later, the crew spotted him again : this time emerging from the back door of a house right at the very other end of the street. The roof spaces were all connected - and had no walls between the attics. McGuinness had run along the ceilings to freedom.