The day I took Martin McGuinness to Baghdad

22 March 2017 - by Quintin Oliver

Quintin Oliver recalls the day in 2008 when he took Martin McGuinness to the Iraqi capital.



My mum was more worried about my travelling companion than with the destination; she had moved to Belfast during the second world war, as an English Quaker, banished from Britain as a conscientious objector, required to report to the RUC each day in case she took war secrets to de Valera in Dublin. 

Three decades later she had to report again to the RUC. Our family was apparently under IRA surveillance in east Belfast; the police parked a jeep outside our house for three years.

Roll on another thirty years and I was flying to Baghdad, as Martin McGuinness’s bag-carrier in a peace-making mission to launch the Helsinki Principles that he and leaders from the Northern Ireland and South African peace processes had helped craft over long days in a Finnish forest, with warring Iraqi factions.

Martin was an amiable conflict resolution colleague, alert and generous, amusing, and only once steely, when I gauchely overstepped the mark with an inappropriate observation. He charmed our security operatives, thanking them personally and posing for photographs; he wowed our overnight hosts, encouraging their teenager to apply for the PSNI.

Nevertheless, in the Iraqi negotiations he showed his formidable skills, highlighting the power of leadership and dovetailing seamlessly with the DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson and the PUP’s Billy Hutchinson as they compared their "legal and illegal armies", and the attempts made to eliminate each other. Now they were sharing a cabinet table. That authenticity made a powerful impact.

Over dinner in Helsinki, I teased him for pouring salt on his food, before tasting it. Ironically now, he retorted that he had to face worse enemies than a scattering of sodium. He scolded me for tweeting about his illness last month – he wanted, and I want him, to be remembered for his leadership.

An edited version of this article was first published in today's Daily Mirror.