Martin McGuinness’s right-hand man walks across the bar and introduces himself as Dominic. With his black blazer and grey trousers I had assumed he was the head waiter. The image of Sinn Fein, political wing of the IRA, has changed. Gone are the donkey jackets and jeans. It’s more Armani than bargain basement these days.
In comes the newly elected MP for Ulster-Mid. At 47, he is slightly stooped in the shoulder but is built like a retired rugby player. McGuinness, a teetotaller, orders an apple juice. Dominic has a lemonade. I join the party and order mineral water.
We slide into things gently. “Is it true you’re a keen fisherman?” I ask.
”That’s an understatement,” says McGuinness. He leans forward confidentially. “Do you know I have written an ode to the sea trout?” I say I’d like to see it.
We are sitting in the bar of the Trinity Hotel in Londonderry. A party of US tourists in bright colours passes the door. So too do two army Land Rovers, with soldiers and machine-guns poking out of the top. The threatening and the humdrum live side by side in Northern Ireland. The tourists reach for their cameras.
For a time the conversation meanders around rivers and streams. McGuinness is worried about the growing problem of sea lice and the effect on the trout population. But the fishing talk is soon at an end. McGuinness is first and foremost a product of Northern Ireland’s “Troubles”.
In 1972, when he was only 21, McGuinness was part of an IRA delegation that travelled to London for talks with the British government.
He has associated with leading IRA members and carried coffins at IRA funerals. In the early 1970s he was jailed in the Irish Republic, convicted for being a member of the IRA. He has never been convicted of terrorist offences in Northern Ireland. He is admired but also feared - described as a hard man with a soft face.
McGuinness looks around: he was born and bred in the nearby Bogside area. Everyone knows him. There are nods and handshakes.
”Your face is familiar,” McGuinness says to me. Indeed, we had met before. The last occasion was on a miserable March afternoon in 1988 at a cemetery in West Belfast. Three IRA terrorists shot dead by SAS soldiers in Gibraltar were being buried and I was there to cover the story.
As the first coffin was being lowered into the ground a loyalist terrorist threw hand grenades and started shooting. Lying on the ground, I saw the face of Gerry Adams a few feet away, his glasses askew.
McGuinness was up on his feet, directing operations.
Adams is considered to be the brains behind Sinn Fein. McGuinness has always had the reputation of a man of action - he is said to be regarded as good officer material by some in the British army.
The food arrives. Dominic has ordered roast beef, McGuinness chicken casserole and I have the fish. People in Northern Ireland are not known for a heathly diet. McGuinness upends the salt cellar on his chicken. The conversation becomes serious.
He says the British government is now putting forward very different proposals on the peace process. “If it had done that 18 months ago then so many deaths could have been avoided.” He lists each recent incident, from Canary Wharf to the murders last month by the IRA of two RUC men.
”You seem always to blame someone else for the murders and bombings,” I say. “Don’t you ever take responsibility?”
”We are all part of the problem,” says McGuinness. “At least the IRA admitted responsibility for the deaths of those two policemen. It’s something the British army and RUC never do.”
So does that make it all right, I ask. People can be murdered but, as long as you admit it, everything is fine? I find my voice has risen. My fish is getting cold.
McGuinness is totally calm. “I’m not justifying what happened to those policemen or other tragic events but you’ve got to understand the feelings of neglect and exclusion of people in the nationalist community. It’s to do with levels of hurt and anger.”
McGuinness claims reporting of events in Northern Ireland is often selective. The deaths of the two policemen last month was met with a lot of media hysteria, he says.
A wafer-thin man comes up to shake the hand of the chief Sinn Fein negotiator. “This here is a player of the Uilleann pipes,” says McGuinness. The man looks embarrassed. “I taught him to play the tin whistle when we were in Crumlin Road jail together in 1976.”
But I want to get back to talking about the man from the Bogside. Why has so little been written about him?
”The two greatest influences on my life have been the British Army and the RUC,” says McGuinness. There is a slight smile. The eyes twinkle.
I bring up the question of credibility. Who am I talking to? The IRA or Sinn Fein? Surely they are one and the same thing.
McGuinness is unruffled. “You might never trust me,” he says. “I might never trust you. But we have to find a way forward. We have to break the cycle. And I vehemently refute your allegation that the leadership of the IRA and Sinn Fein are interconnected.
”I don’t speak for the IRA. People try to demonise Gerry Adams and me, to marginalise us. That’s the road to nowhere and to more confrontation. Look at the election results. Look at how many people voted for Sinn Fein. They voted for our analysis of what’s happening. You can’t turn them into second class citizens by denying them a voice.”
We have finished eating. I look over McGuinness’s shoulder. Who is watching us? Is he concerned for his safety?
”It’s something I don’t get up in the morning worrying about. I’m careful, not foolish. I can still go off trout fishing alone.”
I ask if he ever regrets becoming so involved in events. “Sometimes I want to grab my fly rod and just go away but I’m a republican first and foremost. What motivates me now is that I can help bring about a settlement.”
He talks of taking risks for peace. I wonder where the threats come from - the loyalists or his own side.
Is the reason he does not condemn the IRA that, if he did so, he would be killed by an IRA bullet in the morning?
There is a slight pause. “Ritualistic condemnations are pointless,” he says. “I go beyond condemning by the work I’m doing. Look at the way the unionist politicians condemn the killing of nationalists. I can’t believe they are sincere. Their condemnations are not worth tuppence to me or to most people in the nationalist community.”
We have coffee. I say I can’t understand what Sinn Fein and the IRA are about. To most people in both the north and south of Ireland the idea of unity is irrelevant. They just want to get on with their lives in peace. “The southerners don’t want you. You are trouble,” I venture.
McGuinness points to recent Sinn Fein election successes on both sides of the border. People in the south have shown their support. Even in Britain he finds many people agree with him. “What is going on has caught the world’s imagination.”
I say we must live on different planets. Most people I meet, in Ireland or Britain, just wish Northern Ireland and its problems would go away.
The photographer arrives. Dominic tells me McGuinness hates photos. The waitress jokes with him. No doubt about it: the Sinn Fein man is a charmer. His answers are as practised as those of an old-style politburo official.
But after two hours’ conversation I can’t say I feel any more optimistic about the future of Northern Ireland.