Read the full transcript of Head to Head – Terrorists or freedom fighters? below:
Mehdi Hasan (VO): After 9/11, a new kind of war was launched. [George W Bush said: “Our war against terror is only beginning”] So what is terrorism? Who gets to decide who is a terrorist? And can political violence ever be morally justified? My guest tonight, a key player in the conflict in Northern Ireland, would argue “Yes”.
Martin McGuinness’ former organisation, the IRA, considered a terrorist organisation by most, believed it was fighting legitimately against British occupation. McGuinness gave up arms and is now deputy first minister in Northern Ireland. I want to challenge him on how he justifies his violent past and ask him whether the lessons of the Northern Irish peace process can be applied to other conflicts.
I will also be joined by three experts tonight who will share their perspectives: Professor Louise Richardson, one of the world’s leading experts on terrorism; Dr Azzam Tamimi, the Palestinian author of Hamas: A History from Within; and Charlie Wolf, a conservative political commentator from the United States.
Ladies and gentlemen, Martin McGuinness.
Mehdi Hasan (VO): The deputy first minister of Ireland is now a man of peace. He travels the world, advocating dialogue as the only way to end conflict.
Mehdi Hasan: Martin McGuinness, you have heard the cliche, we have all heard the cliche: one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. We hear it all the time. What I want to ask you to kick this discussion off with is: Do you share that view? Is that a view you take, an opinion you agree with?
Martin McGuinness: It is a label. The word terrorist is a label used on many occasions by governments to demonise those who dare to stand against them. In our situation in Ireland I was labelled a terrorist, the organisation that I was part of, the IRA, was labelled a terrorist organisation. We need to get behind the labels and we need to address the issues that cause people to turn to violence in order to achieve political objectives. George Washington was described as a terrorist. Margaret Thatcher described Nelson Mandela as a terrorist.
Mehdi Hasan: Were you a terrorist?
Martin McGuinness: No, I was not.
Mehdi Hasan: Was anyone involved in…
Martin McGuinness: [INTERRUPTING]…But I am saying that I – I understand that because the label was then attached to me that there was a large percentage of people who actually believed that I was.
Mehdi Hasan: And was anyone, in your view, involved in the conflict in Northern Ireland a terrorist?
Martin McGuinness: Well let me put it this way, I lived in a city where the people were treated like second-class citizens in their own country, where the minority ruled the roost, ruled the local government, and effectively frowned upon Irishness. And before ever there was an IRA in my city, the British Army were shooting citizens dead, and as a result of that they were seen as an occupying army, and many people in my city saw the British army as terrorists.
Mehdi Hasan: Most people in this room, most people watching at home, would probably agree that deliberately taking the lives of innocent people to advance your cause, political, social, economic, whatever, surely is an act of terror, and surely the group you were part of, the IRA, carried out these acts of terror?
Martin McGuinness: All of the groups that were involved in the conflict in the North of Ireland were involved in taking the lives of innocent people, and it was horrible and it was terrible, and it was wrong. The use of the label terrorist suggests that the people who are labelled terrorists are, if you like, beyond reasoning with, beyond negotiating with, and beyond having any reasonable sensible dialogue to resolve the conflict. I think, in my case and in the case of the people who supported my and others’ contribution towards the peace process, people had to come to the conclusion that we were prepared to be reasonable.
Mehdi Hasan: Let’s deal with when you were in the IRA, up until 1974. Even before you left, the IRA were killing non-combatants, the Bloody Friday bombings across Belfast 1972, July, killed 11 people including a Catholic mother of seven and a Protestant teenager aged 14. How is that not an act of terror? That is not freedom fighting, that is killing innocent people who were not fighting anyone.
Martin McGuinness: Absolutely terrible, absolutely terrible that events…
Mehdi Hasan: So why did you do it?
Martin McGuinness: Well I didn’t do it.
Mehdi Hasan: The organisation you were part of at the time carried it out.
Martin McGuinness: But I’m not from Belfast. In 1974 I was in prison, I was in Portlaoise prison in the south. But the reality is that war is absolutely horrible, and all of the protagonists and combatants in the conflict in the North of Ireland, and there is even a debate around, you know, was it a war, was it a conflict, was it a conspiracy, blah, blah.
Mehdi Hasan: Very much so. Because if it wasn’t a war that leaves you not as legitimate soldiers.
Martin McGuinness: Well, but the reality is that there was a conflict, there was a war situation on the streets of Belfast, and in the city where I lived, and as a result of that people resorted to the bomb and the bullet. Bombs were placed. On some occasions, innocent people lost their lives. On other occasions, British soldiers lost their lives. We had situations such as Bloody Sunday where the British army, it had no difficulty in shooting people down in the streets. We had Loyalist Paramilitaries being used by elements within British Military Intelligence to murder óglaigh in the street.
Mehdi Hasan: When I hear this it does sound like this school ground argument, that they did this, so I did this.
Martin McGuinness: If you want to examine the roots of the conflict and all of the participants in the conflict, then we have to have this discussion.
Mehdi Hasan: I want to examine the morality of killing innocent people.
Martin McGuinness: Well I would never defend the killing of innocent people.
Mehdi Hasan: So at the time, when the IRA were planting bombs, say in 1973, September they planted bombs in Euston Station, King’s Cross Station in London. The IRA killed six civilians in a bomb attack in County Antrim, June 1973. Were you saying at the time to your fellow IRA members: “This is wrong, why are we doing this?”
Martin McGuinness: Well I have said and will say now that in circumstances where innocent civilians lost their lives, whether it be on the streets of London or, or the streets of the North of Ireland, or anywhere else, it was absolutely totally wrong.
The IRA have to hold their hands up and be accountable for that. I mean I was recently in Warrington, with Colin Parry and his wife Wendy, who lost their son along with another young boy in Warrington, and as a Republican Leader I held my hands up and said, you know, these situations were wrong, and that I am glad that I have played a part over the course of the last over 20 years in bringing that conflict to an end.
Remember this is a conflict that has existed on the island of Ireland for something like eight centuries, and for the last 20 years I and others have been very proactively and passionately involved in building the peace process, so that we would never, ever see that type of conflict happen again, and I think we’ve been hugely successful.
Mehdi Hasan: Help our viewers understand the mindset of someone who joins a group like the IRA and, and has to carry out these kind of acts, or feels the need to carry them out. Is it simply the case that the ends justify the means? Is it, how you justify it, when you are in a group like that and you are sitting around the table and someone says let us put a bomb at Euston Station. Do you say, well, you know, it is pretty horrible what is going to happen to the people, but you know what? The ends justify the means.
Martin McGuinness: No, when you are in that scenario and you are effectively in a situation where there is an acceptance that a major conflict is taking place, and in the eyes of many other people, a war is taking place, many of the combatants do then become involved in actions, that even though many years on they would be absolutely ashamed of.
But in that scenario, you end up effectively, and what I have described in the past, as a vicious cycle of conflict. I mean if, remember, at the beginning of all of this, you know, when I was 21 years of age, the British government introduced internment in the North of Ireland. They took innocent people from their homes, brought them to interrogation centres, held them without trial, tortured them. The British government was later found guilty at the European Court of Human Rights of inhuman and degrading treatment, and you get into this vicious cycle of conflict. You will never have a conflict where innocent people don’t lose their lives.
Mehdi Hasan: Did you justify it to yourself at the time?
Martin McGuinness: The killing of innocent people? No, no under no circumstances.
Mehdi Hasan: Did you ever order the killing of anyone?
Martin McGuinness: Well you see if we get into that discussion, let me put it this way, if we get into that discussion we had, an occupying army in our city. I fought against the British army. I am proud that I did so.
Mehdi Hasan: Can I take that as a yes then?
Martin McGuinness: When I was arrested in 1974, ITN had a reporter who reported my arrest. He made the claim that I had boasted that I had killed six members of the British army. That was a total downright lie. I had never, ever made such a boast. For me to get on to this discussion with…
Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] You never made a boast, but did you kill six people in the army?
Martin McGuinness: [INTERRUPTING] But for me to get…
Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] The ones you already boasted about.
Martin McGuinness: But for me to get into this discussion with you now. If I was to confirm what you said – tomorrow morning that would be a boast. I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to do that.
Mehdi Hasan: I’m not sure it would be a boast. We will come back to this subject, because I think there’s a whole issue about reconciliation and we have a very patient panel of experts, waiting to come in. I want to bring in first Professor Louise Richardson, who is one of the world’s leading experts on terrorism, author of the book What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat. Louise, is there a definition that you use, being a terrorism expert, by which you identify terrorists? Because we do have this issue – how do we tell the difference? Can we tell the difference?
Louise Richardson: Yes, we can tell the difference. Terrorists are people who deliberately target non-combatants for a political purpose, and terrorists are not, by and large, waging a war because they don’t have mass support. If they had mass support they would rage first a guerrilla army or, indeed, large conventional armies. It’s precisely because they don’t have mass support, they are a minority group, that they use shocking tactics, psychological tactics, tactics that are deemed the excesses of warfare – namely, killing non-combatants to have a greater effect.
Mehdi Hasan: And when you hear Martin talk about his own role in the IRA, and having left, you know, when he left and became a politician, what is your response to that?
Louise Richardson: Well, that is not consistent with what most academics who observe Mr McGuinness’ career in Northern Ireland, which would suggest that he certainly didn’t leave in the early 1970s. I would also say in Mr McGuinness’ defence, there is no doubt in my mind that the IRA was a terrorist organisation, and, but over time and under his leadership, their violence did become more discriminate, did focus on killing soldiers as opposed to innocent civilians.
Mehdi Hasan: Well, let me bring in Dr Azzam Tamimi. You’re a Palestinian academic, author of the book Hamas: A History from Within. Louise Richardson was saying that terrorist groups tend not to have mass support, although being an insurgent movement, a guerrilla movement etc. Let’s take a group like Hamas which has support definitely. It was elected as the Palestinian government not so long ago, but on the other hand has also blown up school buses full of innocent kids. What would your response be to those people who say Hamas very much meets the definition of terrorism. It is killing indiscriminately – to use the phrase – it’s not discriminate when you get on a bus and you kill kids, there’s nothing discriminate about that.
Azzam Tamimi: Well the definition we have just heard of terrorism applies more to the United States of America than anybody else in the world. Drones killing civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and probably elsewhere in the world. You see labelling people with the label of terrorism, and labelling Hamas in particular as a terrorist organisation only serves to divert attention from the real issue.
Mehdi Hasan: Let me ask you this question then. You were a support of the Palestinian cause and freedom, I would say that I am a supporter of Palestinian independence, Palestinian freedom, although I don’t support planting bombs on buses full of kids.
Azzam Tamimi: Violence is a response, because grievances are never addressed. We the Palestinians have had our grievances for so long, and nobody is willing to listen to us. We have been branded and labelled as terrorists, although we are freedom fighters.
Mehdi Hasan: Okay, well let me bring in Charlie Wolf who is a US journalist, broadcaster, former spokesman in the UK for the US Republican Party. Charlie, Azzam Tamimi says if the definition of terrorism is deliberately killing innocent people, then the United States is also a terrorist.
Charlie Wolf: No, because the United States doesn’t target innocent civilians. They do all they can to avoid innocent civilians. That is not to say the collateral warfare doesn’t happen, but it is definitely – you don’t see, you don’t…
Mehdi Hasan: When they were napalming and Agent Oranging Vietnam there were no civilians dying?
Charlie Wolf: Well, well napalming, you do not see the United States government targeting civilians, and let’s stick to what’s going on here about acts of violence against civilians by unauthorised groups that have no political or legal legitimacy. Is the violence not just against the so-called enemy, but think of the disappeared. Think of the hundreds that have been knee-capped of your community.
Martin McGuinness: I’m on the public record since the early 1980s, and I actually became a little unpopular within the Republicans at the time when I spoke at an Easter commemoration of Belfast, and called for an end to knee-capping, because I believed they were totally and absolutely wrong, and counter-productive. Now we had a conflict, the IRA could have killed thousands of people on the streets of London if they had wanted to during the course of that conflict, and the same in the North of Ireland, and the circumstances were innocent civilians lost their lives. It normally was on account of the IRA making a huge mistake. But yes, the reality is that innocent people lost their lives.
Mehdi Hasan: But your argument that London, thousands of people died, in my head that sounds like, well we are not al-Qaeda so give us a break.
Martin McGuinness: No, no I am not asking anybody to, to give the IRA a break…
Mehdi Hasan: It sounds like it. You are saying either it was accidental or it could have been much worse.
Martin McGuinness: No what, what I’m trying to do is disprove the notion, because you are working from the perspective that because some people call the IRA a terrorist organisation, that the IRA strategy was to go out and deliberately kill hundreds of people.
Mehdi Hasan: I’m saying that’s what history tells us happened on several occasions. In October 1990, you talk about mistakes and accidents, the provisional IRA in your home city of Derry forced, at gunpoint, a Catholic man named Patrick Gillespie who worked as a cook at a British army base. They forced him at gunpoint, they drove their car behind him to make sure he did it. They forced him to drive his car into an army checkpoint which blew up, killing Patrick Gillespie, four British soldiers and damaging 25 nearby houses. How is that not a cold-blooded killing, a murder plain and simple?
Martin McGuinness Well, but obviously people will have their interpretation of that. What was I doing in October 1990? October 1990 was just a few…
Mehdi Hasan: Some people say you were involved in the IRA in October 1990.
Martin McGuinness: Well let, let me just tell you what I was doing. I will just tell you exactly what I was doing. Margaret Thatcher was the British Prime Minister at the time. She sent an envoy to Derry to meet with me, which we did do over a period of some two hours, I met with that person, with the full support of the Sinn Féin Leadership, and also with the full support of the IRA.
Mehdi Hasan: But that doesn’t change the fact that a few minutes ago you were telling me, “We didn’t kill lots of people randomly. When it happened it was accidental, or unintended.” I am saying to you: you took a Catholic man, someone from your own community, your organisation, or an organisation you once supported…
Martin McGuinness: Well, let me first of all correct you – you are the one that keeps using the word we.
Mehdi Hasan: Let me be, let me be really clear then. The IRA, a group you were defending earlier, took an innocent man, made him blow himself up at a checkpoint. Bishop Edward Daley, well known in your part of the world, said at his funeral, “the people who support the IRA are the complete contradiction of Christianity”. That is a Catholic Bishop’s view on what the IRA was doing in 1990.
Martin McGuinness: Yeah absolutely and I would defend to the death anybody’s right to hold any view whatsoever.
Mehdi Hasan: Do you agree with that view?
Martin McGuinness: No I don’t agree with the view. I think that quite clearly I was involved in er the very embryonic stages of trying to build a peace process, so that I could bring about a scenario where the IRA would call a halt to its activities, and give the opportunity to bring about negotiations which would bring about fundamental change and against all the odds I and others succeeded, and that is why we are now in the stewardship of what is widely recognised as one of the most successful peace processes.
Mehdi Hasan: You said in court once that you were very, very proud to be a member of the IRA. Looking back now as a former member, as someone who was involved in the peace process, now campaigning against men with guns, do you still stand by that? Were you very proud to be in it or actually are you quite ashamed, are you regretful?
Martin McGuinness: No I am proud that I was in the IRA. I’m proud that I fought against the British army. I, also am big enough to put my hands up and say that there were things that the IRA done were totally and absolutely wrong. I joined the IRA because the British army come on to the streets of my city, turned their guns on the citizens, shot citizens dead before the IRA ever engaged in any combat whatsoever, because innocent people were taking to interrogation centres, they were tortured in interrogation centres, because we were being treated as second-class citizens.
Mehdi Hasan: And people who didn’t take the armed struggle – what were you saying to them at the time? “You must join up, this is the only way, we’ll try both ways and see which one works.”
Martin McGuinness: No, no. The greatest recruiting agent for the IRA in my city was the Parachute Regiment, whenever they shot 14 people dead on the streets of Derry. People joined the IRA in droves.
Mehdi Hasan: Dr Tamimi, do you see similarities between the Palestinian struggle now and over the years and between the British army and the Israeli army, between Hamas and the IRA? I’m just wondering whether you look at conflicts and see similarities.
Azzam Tamimi: Well, certainly there are similarities, as well as these similarities. In our case, we have been occupied by foreign invaders. They took our homes, they dispossessed us and we have been living either in refugee camps or in the diaspora. We have been left with no choice but to resort to armed struggle, because nobody has given us peace or justice.
Mehdi Hasan: Looking at the Palestinian situation, the Israeli occupation, I mean I asked Martin earlier about, you know, he has admitted that he was in the IRA and he is proud to fight against the British army. We don’t know if he actually killed anyone because he doesn’t want to boast, but I’m gonna ask you, you have said in the past, you’re on record I believe as saying that you would be willing to die for the Palestinian national cause, that you feel that passionately that you would go and die for the Palestinian cause.
Azzam Tamimi: Well if your country is occupied by invaders wouldn’t you give your life for your country?
Mehdi Hassan: Even if it involves taking innocent lives on the other side? Or would you only focus on a military target? I’m just wondering.
Azzam Tamimi: You see, nobody wants to take innocent lives. Nobody. But in a war that’s inevitable, unfortunately. See when you have…
Mehdi Hasan: But in a war, war crimes happen, not everything that happens in war is legitimate.
Azzam Tamimi: When you have an Israeli, a pilot of an F16 – given to the Israelis by the Americans – dropping bombs on civilians in the Palestinian villages and towns, what do you expect the Palestinians to do? What do you expect them to do? They have to respond.
Charlie Wolf: I have a feeling that this is about power, whether it’s for Mr McGuinness or the leadership of Hamas, or the PLO, or al-Qaeda, or whoever you want to use, these are people that want political power, and as long as they think terrorism works, they will use it.
Azzam Tamimi: No, we just want our homes, we want justice.
Charlie Wolf: Then sit down at the table.
Azzam Tamimi: Get the Israelis to go back to wherever they came from because that’s our land.
Mehdi Hasan: When you listen to Martin McGuinness talk about this cause, and about why he signed up, when you hear Azzam Tamimi talk about the Palestinian one, in your research, from your experience, in your opinion, is there is a single reason, is there a variety of reasons, is there a common factor why people turn to armed groups such as Hamas or the IRA or…?
Louise Richardson: I think the most common factors are three-fold. There is usually a desire for vengeance, against something, whether it’s a case of the notion that foreign troops are on your ground, though it’s worth, worth remembering that British troops were deployed in Northern Ireland to defend Mr McGuinness’ community and mine from an out of control police force, but so yes I think the first motive is, vengeance against some atrocity committed on one’s own community, and in fact terrorists are very good and very consistent at deliberately provoking governments into over-reacting and governments routinely do which it and just serves to win support for the terrorist groups. So the first motive is usually vengeance. The second is a desire to provoke a reaction. Terrorists as I said are invariably weak, and so the bigger the reaction they get, the more important they appear. So they’re deliberately trying to provoke a reaction, and thirdly they are looking for glory. They are looking for renown that because they are small and weak they wouldn’t otherwise get, but they can get it by using violence.
Martin McGuinness: When the British army came into Derry, they didn’t come in to confront the forces of the state who had treated us like second-class citizens. They came in to defend the state, and I think the big difficulty that you have, which I don’t have, is I actually lived there. I went through the experience. That’s a completely different experience from looking at it from a distance.
Louise Richardson: I don’t doubt that for a second. It still doesn’t justify deliberately targeting civilians.
Martin McGuinness: And I have never justified the killing of innocent civilians. Never. Never would.
Mehdi Hasan: Well, we’ve talked about your role as a man of violence.
Martin McGuinness: [INTERRUPTING] I don’t describe myself as a man of violence.
Mehdi Hasan: Okay. But you were part of an organisation that was.
Martin McGuinness: Yes.
Mehdi Hasan: We are going to continue this discussion, this very lively discussion. In part two we’re going to talk about your role as a man of peace, and how you made that journey, and what lessons can be learned from Northern Ireland, for the rest of the world. For the rest of the conflicts across the world. So do stay tuned to Al Jazeera’s Head to Head for part two. We’ll be right back after this break, and we’ll also be talking to our audience in part two.
Mehdi Hasan: Welcome back to Al Jazeera’s Head to Head. We’re talking about terrorism, political violence and how to negotiate an end to conflicts, with Martin McGuinness, former IRA commander turned deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, peace negotiator. Martin, we talked a lot about violence in part one. We talked a lot about the history of the conflict in Northern Ireland, the justifications for terrorism. I want to talk now about your journey, because you’ve been on a journey certainly. In 1986, you were quoted by the Irish News as saying, “Freedom can be gained only at the point of an IRA rifle.” Recently, a few months ago, you were quoted as saying, referring to the Israel/Palestine conflict, “There are no military solutions. Dialogue and diplomacy are the only guarantee of lasting peace.” That’s a rather radical shift in beliefs. How did you make that journey?
Martin McGuinness: One of the most informative experiences that I had was to read a number of theses, written by senior generals, lieutenant colonels in the British army, where each and every one of them conceded that they could not militarily defeat the IRA. And a lot of people in the IRA thought this was great. I looked at it from a different perspective. And I asked another question: Did the IRA believe that it could militarily defeat the British army? And if the answer to that is similar to the analysis of the senior generals in the British army, that poses a huge dilemma around how the conflict was going to be resolved. And I came to the view that we needed to try and bring about a situation where people would come, in an inclusive way, to the negotiating table.
Mehdi Hasan: Do you believe you could have got to that political solution without the previous military violence, terror, whatever label you want to give, element over the previous decades?
Martin McGuinness: The British government recognised what their generals had been telling them, that there was no military solution. What we were seeking was a political solution, and a scenario where the British government would come to the negotiating table willing to address the issues that lay at the heart of the conflict.
Mehdi Hasan: There are still groups out in Northern Ireland which are banned terrorist organisations, like the Continuity IRA, the Real IRA, which continue to target security forces, and even politicians to this very day. What’s your message to them as a fellow Republican? How do you get them round the table with you?
Martin McGuinness: Well, they’re the people who threatened my life on quite a number of occasions. I will not bow the knee to any of them, because the agreements that I have been part of the historic Good Friday Agreement, the St Andrews Agreement and the Hillsborough Agreement, are all agreements that I am proud of. It actually took the very powerful Labour government under Tony Blair, for the first time, to recognise that the British government’s policies in the north of Ireland were as much a part of the problem as anything that the IRA was doing because Tony Blair, in the week that led to the Good Friday negotiations, actually said to me, Martin I have read a number of history books and I accept that we were as responsible for the conflict in the north of Ireland, as anybody else. That was a massive admission, for any British prime minister to make to the leaders of Irish Republicanism.
Mehdi Hasan: If only Tony Blair read some Middle East history books as well.
Martin McGuinness: But that is precisely the point I’m coming to, because of the conversation that we just…
Mehdi Hasan: Well, before we get to that point, just on, just on the splinter groups. Coming back to my point about the people who are still fighting. You called them traitors, to the island of Ireland in 2009. If you were in one of those groups, if I was a fighter in the Continuity IRA, could I be justified in saying, “Look at Martin McGuinness. We’re doing what he did 10, 20, 30 years ago, and when we do it, we’re traitors. When he did it, he was a freedom fighter.”
Martin McGuinness: No, well they couldn’t make that allegation.
Mehdi Hasan: Why not?
Martin McGuinness: Well, I’ll tell you specifically why not, because we negotiated a peace agreement. It was put to the people of Ireland in a referendum, it achieved overwhelming support in the south and amazingly for a lot of people, in the north. So that is a democratically endorsed agreement by all of the people of Ireland. And it is an agreement that makes a provision for Irish unity to take place on account of a referendum that would take place in the north, where the principle of consent applies. But could be changed if people decide to give their allegiance to an all-Ireland parliament.
Mehdi Hasan: Is the message you take to the American government, ‘you must talk to the Taliban’. To the Israeli government, ‘you must talk to Hamas’. To the Kenyans, ‘you must talk to Al Shabaab’. Is your view that, to negotiate and to talk now, is always better than to carry on fighting and trying to bomb a group out of existence? Is that the message you take?
Martin McGuinness: I think dialogue and engagement is of absolute critical importance.
Mehdi Hasan: In every conflict?
Martin McGuinness: In every conflict. Absolutely. And I have delivered that message everywhere. But at the same time, I don’t have any delusions of grandeur about my ability to resolve conflict in any of these places. All I can do is outline our experiences.
Mehdi Hasan: If a Hamas commander, or a politician, Hamas leader, came to you and said, “Martin, what is your advice to us? What would, what should we do right now to try and increase our chances of resolving this conflict, advancing our goals?” What would you say to them?
Martin McGuinness: I would tell them to do everything in their power to bring about a negotiation which would deal with the issues that lay at the heart of the conflict. And I would tell those who are opposed to them that the wise and sensible thing to do is to do what the British government done in the north of Ireland. Recognise the importance of engaging and not allowing obstacles to be put in the way. It was very important for the IRA to unilaterally decide on a ceasefire. That created all sorts of food for thought within the governments.
Whether it be the British government, the US government, and the Irish government, and created a circumstance where, as a result of the IRA calling a ceasefire, within a few months of the IRA calling a ceasefire, loyalist paramilitaries also called ceasefires.
Mehdi Hasan: Well let me go back to our panel. Charlie Wolf, Martin McGuinness mentioned the importance of dialogue and diplomacy in conflicts around the world. You were a big supporter of a president, George W Bush, who wasn’t the greatest fan of dialogue and diplomacy. He gave us a war on terror which effectively gave us 10 years of more war and more terror.
Charlie Wolf: In some situations, there is a point where the military has to take its place before you get to the space of negotiating. For instance, with al-Qaeda, I don’t know what you would actually negotiate with.
Mehdi Hasan: Would you negotiate with al-Qaeda, would you, if you were advising the American government, would you say you need to find a way to sit down at the table with people representing al-Qaeda?
Martin McGuinness: Yes, if the judgement is made that this is a group that recognises that it, too, has to participate in this search for a political solution. I think you have to make an assessment as to whether or not there are people within that organisation who are willing to negotiate and to forge an agreement. I do see them as different from groups that are described as national liberation groups. And I do think that the attack on the World Trade Centre on 9/11 was absolutely atrocious.
Azzam Tamimi: Al-Qaeda lives and flourishes on other people’s conflicts. And that’s why you cannot really negotiate with al-Qaeda, and al-Qaeda is not interested in negotiating with anybody. But if you resolve the other conflicts, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Palestine and elsewhere, al-Qaeda will have no reason to exist. See, the key to resolving the Irish conflict, was what we’ve just heard from Martin. When the British government admitted that they were part of the problem as much as everybody else, and this is what happened in South Africa when apartheid came to an end, because the white minority there, that oppressed the overwhelming black majority, recognised that apartheid could not be sustained. Now similarly, in Palestine, when we have a generation of Israelis who would recognise that Zionism, the ideology of an exclusive homeland for the Jews in Palestine, which is our homeland, recognise that this ideology is defunct, and cannot be sustained, then we can have peace and we can negotiate a better future.
Mehdi Hasan: So if the Israeli government aren’t willing to do what you’re saying, go that far, would you be in favour of the Israeli government and Hamas representatives sitting round the table to try and do a deal?
Azzam Tamimi: Oh definitely, if the Israelis want to talk, I’m willing to talk to them. But the problem is that they say we don’t talk to terrorism. The same problem that the British government had before. You see, you have to talk to your enemies in order to reach some sort of a compromise.
Mehdi Hasan: Hamas charter says, “we do not believe in negotiating.”
Azzam Tamimi: I’ll send you a copy of my book and then you can understand better.
Martin McGuinness: If you look at how al-Qaeda have effectively and, through the serious misjudgement of others, exacerbated the gulf between East and West, as a result of the attack on the World Trade Centre. That brought about the invasion of Afghanistan, which I think was a disaster. Brought about the invasion of Iraq, which I thought was a total disaster. I spoke to Tony Blair, and I say this as someone who has huge, and this may not be popular with a lot of people here, admiration for the role that he played in resolving the conflict in the north of Ireland. And ever since that, you know, I thought that would have been his legacy. And what a legacy to have. But it was thrown away in Afghanistan, it was thrown away in Iraq. I asked Tony Blair, I said why did you hook up your wagon to George Bush? And he said it was because of 9/11. He gave me a straight answer. But in my opinion it was the biggest mistake he ever made.
Mehdi Hasan: I want to bring in our very patient audience who’ve been waiting – just one last question to Professor Louise Richardson on our panel. You literally wrote the book on how to deal, on how to contain terrorism. What advice do you give to governments in order to bring a conflict to a close?
Louise Richardson: Well in this I would agree entirely with Mr McGuinness. You always engage your enemy, behind the scenes, publicly if you can, but you gain so much information by doing that. We’ve casually said well there’s nothing al-Qaeda will negotiate on. How do we know unless we engage them? I think there are real distinctions to be drawn between groups which have politically negotiable goals like the PLO, the IRA, the ETA, Tamil Tigers and so on. But unless you engage with them, you won’t know what’s motivating them. You also garner enormously good intelligence. You learn who the peacemakers in the organisation are, and, who, what the internal impediments to peace within the organisation are.
Mehdi Hasan: Are there no examples where military action, a military solution, actually works in ending a terrorist threat?
Louise Richardson: Not without replacing terrorism from below with terrorism from above. Now, Brazil demolished terrorism, Chile did, Argentina did. But none of them were democracies, none of them did so in a way that is consistent with being a democratic state.
Mehdi Hasan: And some would state terrorism. I’m going to throw the discussion open to our audience who have been sitting patiently.
Audience Participant 1: What I would like to say is that, throughout my association with Martin McGuinness, and I come from a very personal position here because my 12-year-old son James was one of the 29 people butchered in Omagh by Mr McGuinness’ former colleagues in the IRA in 1998, and for me, this has been a very difficult and poignant evening. But I would like to say this: that the people for whom this audience should have the most respect, are the victims and their families, who over the years have consistently and always rejected violence, despite the sufferings and the enormous personal sufferings of over 3,000 people in Northern Ireland, most of which I have to say, are victims of the IRA. It is those people who are prepared to put violence behind them and to not get involved in a circle of revenge, for whom we have to have most respect. But I’d like to come onto this point about Martin McGuinness. And Martin has consistently this evening, despite some very tough questioning as he always manages to do with me, avoiding many of the important issues. Which is that Martin has a means and knows of the people who are involved in the Omagh bombing and has refused consistently to get people to come forward to give evidence to the police, so that these people can be convicted of their crimes. But the second thing is, I would have more respect for Martin McGuinness as he portrays himself as a person of democracy, if he completed his democratic journey and he admitted some of the crimes that he’s been part of. You mentioned Patsy Gillespie. Patsy Gillespie’s widow, who’s still alive today, knows exactly what happened and who ordered the death of her husband. Everybody in this room would have more respect for you Martin if you accepted your position and you started telling the truth.
Martin McGuinness: I don’t know who was involved in the bomb explosion, who took the life of Patrick Gillespie. Some people might think I do, but I don’t. In the case of the Omagh bomb, I unreservedly condemned the bomb. And I have consistently supported the families’ demand for an international public investigation into that bomb. And I did that because I do believe that there are serious questions to be answered.
Mehdi Hasan: When you say you don’t know, for example, in Patsy Gillespie’s case, you could find out?
Martin McGuinness: I am in government. The job of finding out is the responsibility of the police. My party has proposed the establishment of an independent international truth commission. And I have made it absolutely clear that I am willing to attend that. I just wonder are the senior operatives within British military intelligence and others who are resisting the establishment of such a forum, are they willing to attend?
Mehdi Hasan: And is your position that I won’t, I won’t own up to everything I did until they own up to everything they did? Is that the position? It has to be done simultaneously?
Martin McGuinness: No, I think, I mean, see one of the big difficulties, and it’s a difficulty that the media have. The media have this notion you see, that the people who were responsible for the conflict in the north of Ireland were the IRA. And so they focus on the IRA disproportionately. All of it has to be explored.
Audience Participant 2: I think all of us can follow political grievances, but once a campaign of political violence starts, the genie’s out of the bottle. In particular, revenge. Whether it’s real or imaginary. What advice would you give to people to contain or combat those who are motivated by revenge and not grievances, because they will keep on going as some do in Northern Ireland.
Martin McGuinness: Well I think that’s a good question. I think that the grievances that me and many others spoke about over many years have been negotiated out in a very peaceful way. And implemented over the course of this peace process, particularly since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. So a lot of these groups are involved because they want to try and plunge us back to a past. Now that isn’t going to happen. You know? Every now and again there’s a wobble in the process back home, but I can tell you without fear of contradiction, the peace process is rock solid. So I don’t have any concern about the ability of these small, unrepresentative groups to dislodge the peace process. What we have to do is continually cut the ground from under them, so that we can continue to move forward, in peace.
Audience Participant 3: My question to you is, is the label of terrorism and the terrorist something that we could do without?
Martin McGuinness: Sometimes governments will make an assessment that people cannot be negotiated with and they push for military solutions. And sometimes these conflicts can go on for decades and decades and decades.
Audience Participant 4: I’m just wondering, once a group achieves peace or freedom or whatever it is they’re fighting for, do you think that the burden of having engaged in violent struggle is too much? Is it a legacy from which a community can ever recover? Or does it shape the community thereafter?
Martin McGuinness: That’s a very important question. I do believe that it’s going to be very difficult to get the full truth about what happened in the past. For the simple reason that getting people to come forward, to, for example, if there was to be an independent international peace commission. But if there was to be such a process, I think it would be absolutely vital that the people go forward, because without seeing a situation where, for political motives, some politicians in the north of Ireland are using the issue of victims, as a political weapon against the political institutions that exist at the moment.
Audience Participant 5: You and your fellow soldiers were fighting a war for 25 years. You were either on the run or fighting or doing things that had nothing to do with preparing for government. Eventually you got to a situation where you are helping to run the state and you had to deal with education, health, sewers and drains, whatever. How do you make the transition, successfully, from a fighting organisation to one that can actually properly function?
Mehdi Hasan: And just to clarify, you believe the IRA, you said were soldiers, you believe Martin was a soldier?
Audience Participant 5: Yeah, I believe they were soldiers. I think they committed a lot of evil things but I think all soldiers do, deliberately or otherwise.
Martin McGuinness: I mean I was Sinn Fein’s chief negotiator during the course of the Good Friday negotiations. And if I was to say to you, you know 10 years before that, I had some sense that I would be in that position, and that the outcome would be power sharing in the north and that I would be a minister in the government, never believed that for one minute. We had a situation where we joined the negotiations in the autumn of 1997 and we had an agreement by April 1998, which was pretty incredible. I ended up in government as minister of education. I walked into my department which is in the most unionist part of the north of Ireland, the following Monday. I walked in everybody was calling me minister I said if you like just call me Martin. I moved into it quite easily.
Audience Participant 6: As I understand, the main problem between the terrorists and the states is that they speak different language. You’ve travelled the path from being a radical to being part of the government. How do you bring more people to travel the same path from speaking the language of war, to speaking the language of negotiations?
Martin McGuinness: People have to get to know one another. They convinced us that they were serious about resolving the conflict. We convinced them, we convinced them that we, too, were serious about resolving the conflict. Gerry Adams and I used to come over here to London, er, and we would travel down to Chequers at the weekend, and we would spend maybe three or four hours with Tony Blair in Chequers. And we would talk about the political situation in the north of Ireland. That never happened under a conservative government. It happened because he wanted to learn what sort of people we were. But we also wanted to learn what sort of person he was. And if governments are not prepared to be involved in that sort of engagement, which Louise referred to correctly earlier, in my opinion they’re making a huge mistake.
Audience Participant 7: The jurisprudence is once a terrorist, always a terrorist. The status is immutable. My question is what message do you think it sends to the wider world when a terrorist is rewarded for their crimes with immunity from prosecution and high political office?
Martin McGuinness: Question back at you is do you regard the soldiers who killed 14 people on the streets of Derry as terrorists? Do you regard the British intelligence operatives who colluded with loyalist paramilitaries as terrorists?
Audience Participant 7: Yes
Martin McGuinness: I don’t believe that I have been given immunity from prosecution. The only immunity that I received was the same immunity all of the people who were involved in the IRA in Derry, for example…
Mehdi Hasan: I mean you talk about immunity. Is it because you’re worried about prosecution, that you don’t just come out and say look, I’ve got this far, I am where I am, I believe in reconciliation. Here’s what I did. Here’s the atrocities I was involved in and I want to say sorry to the victims.
Martin McGuinness: Well, I think all of us who were combatants in the conflict collectively, maybe just might be able to agree that all of us should say sorry to the victims.
Mehdi Hasan: Okay but you individually?
Martin McGuinness: Well, I absolutely am prepared to say sorry to people whose lives I have affected negatively.
Mehdi Hasan: But you’re not saying it yet?
Martin McGuinness: I’ve just said I’m prepared to say sorry.
Mehdi Hasan: So is that a sorry?
Martin McGuinness: We should all, we should all be sorry and regretful that there was a conflict that lasted over 20 years in which many people in my community, many people in other communities, many members of the IRA, many British soldiers, many police officers lost their lives. We should all be very regretful and very sorrowful that such a conflict happened. But I can’t change the past. The past is the past. It’s happened, we have to learn from it. But more importantly, we have to ensure that it never ever happens again. And that’s my commitment to peace.
Mehdi Hasan: Martin McGuinness, on that note, thank you very much for coming here to be part of Head to Head here at the Oxford Union. Thank you very much to our audience here for coming along, and throwing questions at you. And our panel. Thank you all at home for watching. The debate will continue online, and we’ll be back here next week at the Oxford Union for the next interview in our Head to Head series. Goodnight.