The NS Interview: Martin McGuinness

“As a former IRA man, I accept all the responsibilities that are due to me”

Will the recent breakthrough have the historic significance of the Good Friday Agreement?
The Good Friday Agreement was an incredible breakthrough. But it's my view that the Hillsborough Agreement could see politics in the north come of age, and see us all move forwards on the basis of equality and partnership.

To what extent has your own thinkingchanged over the decades?
I'm still an Irish republican; I absolutely believe in Irish unity and am working to achieve that. But over the course of 15 years or more, people like myself and others have been working to end the vicious cycle of conflict.

The latest polls say you are poised to become first minister. What would that mean to you?
Others are more fixated on that than I am. I am basically content doing the job I am doing at the moment. I want to work with Peter Robinson as First Minister in a positive, constructive way, and leave the elections to the electorate.

Since forming your alliance, how has your view of Ian Paisley and his values changed?
Obviously Ian Paisley and I were regarded as very bitter opponents. When we decided in March 2007 to govern together, both of us understood that we weren't going to change our views, but that we had to work with one another if we were to end the conflict and move forward. It was pretty amazing we were able to strike up the relationship that we did. But I value it, and I regard Ian Paisley as a friend.

Do you think IRA terrorism on the mainland damaged the cause of a united Ireland?
War is terrible. There is nothing romantic about war. But the community I come from believes it has in effect been discriminated against. I come from Derry where, before the IRA fired a gunshot, Samuel Devenny was beaten to death by members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and Seamus Cusack and Desmond Beattie were shot dead by the Royal Anglian Regiment. Sometimes it's like the blame for the conflict rests only at the door of Irish republicans - whereas I believe it rests at 10 Downing Street and the offices of unionist parties in the north.

Would a Tory government threaten your cause?
Well, I've met with Owen Paterson [the Conservative shadow Northern Ireland secretary] and David Cameron, and they made it clear that they are prepared to stand faithfully by the agreements that have been made. Being involved constructively in the north of Ireland is a steep learning curve. I hope whatever government is elected will come at this as positively as Labour did in recent times.

Will there be a united Ireland in your lifetime?
Well, I'm working to achieve that. I believe that the agreements we have made allow us to go forward - and I'm quoting Ian Paisley - to bring to an end the old hatreds and divisions that have been so much to our detriment.

How does your faith affect your politics?
It doesn't affect my politics at all. We have to govern by treating every single citizen equally.

So you believe Protestants are just as faithful as Catholics are?
Absolutely.

How do you deal with receiving death threats?
I never let it weigh me down. I have a job to do. Overwhelmingly, the people of Ireland support the peace process. There are unionists who have tried to bring it down; there are people associated with small, unrepresentative armed groups on the republican side who are also trying to destroy it. I'm going to do everything in my power to ensure that they don't succeed.

Do you ever fear for your family's safety?
No. If these people take action, I presume they will take it against me. But I'm not going to let that put me off doing the work that I am doing.

Have you ever killed a man?
I made my statement to the Bloody Sunday tribunal, where I admitted that I was a member of the IRA in Derry during a very difficult period of our history. As a former member of the IRA, I accept all the responsibilities that are due to me. But in terms of the individual circumstances, I don't comment on that.

What do you regret?
I regret the bitter conflict on the island of Ireland, and that many people lost their lives. I absolutely regret that the body politic failed those people, and that a blind eye was turned by successive governments in London - and by some in Dublin - to the plight of nationalists.

Is there, or was there, a plan?
The planet we live on is an extraordinary place; scientists tell us we're unique in terms of the universe. I wonder about how we have arrived here, and who was responsible for that.

Are we all doomed?
I don't believe we're doomed at all. Here in Ireland we've seen extraordinary circumstances. We are looking forward to a bright future.

The London Irish Unity Conference, with speakers including Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, will be held on 20 February at TUC Congress House, London.

http://www.londonirishunityconference.org

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, IRAN

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“I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”: why aren’t we taking mental health sick days?

Some employees with mental health problems fake reasons for taking days off, or struggle in regardless. What should companies be doing differently?

“I would go to the loo and just cry my eyes out. And sometimes colleagues could hear me. Then I would just go back to my desk as if nothing had happened. And, of course, no one would say anything because I would hide it as well as I could.”

How many times have you heard sobbing through a work toilet door – or been the person in the cubicle?

Jaabir Ramlugon is a 31-year-old living in north London. He worked in IT for four years, and began having to take time off for depressive episodes after starting at his company in 2012. He was eventually diagnosed with borderline personality disorder last January.

At first, he would not tell his employers or colleagues why he was taking time off.

“I was at the point where I was in tears going to work on the train, and in tears coming back,” he recalls. “Some days, I just felt such a feeling of dread about going into work that I just physically couldn’t get up ... I wouldn’t mention my mental health; I would just say that my asthma was flaring up initially.”

It wasn’t until Ramlugon was signed off for a couple of months after a suicide attempt that he told his company what he was going through. Before that, a “culture of presenteeism” at his work – and his feeling that he was “bunking off” because there was “nothing physically wrong” – made him reluctant to tell the truth about his condition.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem; the way they treated me amplified that”

Eventually, he was dismissed by his company via a letter describing him as a “huge burden” and accusing him of “affecting” its business. He was given a dismissal package, but feels an alternative role or working hours – a plan for a gradual return to work – would have been more supportive.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem. The way they treated me definitely amplified that, especially with the language that they used. The letter was quite nasty because it talked about me being a huge burden to the company.”

Ramlugon is not alone. Over three in ten employees say they have experienced mental health problems while in employment, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Under half (43 per cent) disclose their problem to their employer, and under half (46 per cent) say their organisation supports staff with mental health problems well.

I’ve spoken to a number of employees in different workplaces who have had varying experiences of suffering from mental ill health at work.

***

Taking mental health days off sick hit the headlines after an encouraging message from a CEO to his employee went viral. Madalyn Parker, a web developer, informed her colleagues in an out-of-office message that she would be taking “today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health – hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100 per cent”.

Her boss Ben Congleton’s reply, which was shared tens of thousands of times, personally thanked her – saying it’s “an example to us all” to “cut through the stigma so we can bring our whole selves to work”.

“Thank you for sending emails like this,” he wrote. “Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health – I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organisations.”


Congleton went on to to write an article entitled “It’s 2017 and Mental Health is still an issue in the workplace”, arguing that organisations need to catch up:

“It’s 2017. We are in a knowledge economy. Our jobs require us to execute at peak mental performance. When an athlete is injured they sit on the bench and recover. Let’s get rid of the idea that somehow the brain is different.”

But not all companies are as understanding.

In an investigation published last week, Channel 5 News found that the number of police officers taking sick days for poor mental health has doubled in six years. “When I did disclose that I was unwell, I had some dreadful experiences,” one retired detective constable said in the report. “On one occasion, I was told, ‘When you’re feeling down, just think of your daughters’. My colleagues were brilliant; the force was not.”

“One day I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”

One twenty-something who works at a newspaper echoes this frustration at the lack of support from the top. “There is absolutely no mental health provision here,” they tell me. “HR are worse than useless. It all depends on your personal relationships with colleagues.”

“I was friends with my boss so I felt I could tell him,” they add. “I took a day off because of anxiety and explained what it was to my boss afterwards. But that wouldn’t be my blanket approach to it – I don’t think I’d tell my new boss [at the same company], for instance. I have definitely been to work feeling awful because if I didn’t, it wouldn’t get done.”

Presenteeism is a rising problem in the UK. Last year, British workers took an average of 4.3 days off work due to illness – the lowest number since records began. I hear from many interviewees that they feel guilty taking a day off for a physical illness, which makes it much harder to take a mental health day off.

“I felt a definite pressure to be always keen as a young high-flyer and there were a lot of big personalities and a lot of bitchiness about colleagues,” one woman in her twenties who works in media tells me. “We were only a small team and my colleague was always being reprimanded for being workshy and late, so I didn’t want to drag the side down.”

Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which was then changed to anxiety and depression, she didn’t tell her work about her illness. “Sometimes I struggled to go to work when I was really sick. And my performance was fine. I remember constantly sitting there sort of eyeballing everyone in mild amusement that I was hiding in plain sight. This was, at the time, vaguely funny for me. Not much else was.

“One day I just felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen so I locked myself in the bathroom for a bit then went home, telling everyone I had a stomach bug so had to miss half the day,” she tells me. “I didn’t go in the next day either and concocted some elaborate story when I came back.”

Although she has had treatment and moved jobs successfully since, she has never told her work the real reason for her time off.

“In a small company you don’t have a confidential person to turn to; everyone knows everyone.”

“We want employers to treat physical and mental health problems as equally valid reasons for time off sick,” says Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at the mental health charity Mind. “Staff who need to take time off work because of stress and depression should be treated the same as those who take days off for physical health problems, such as back or neck pain.”

She says that categorising a day off as a “mental health sick day” is unhelpful, because it could “undermine the severity and impact a mental health problem can have on someone’s day-to-day activities, and creates an artificial separation between mental and physical health.”

Instead, employers should take advice from charities like Mind on how to make the mental health of their employees an organisational priority. They can offer workplace initiatives like Employee Assistance Programmes (which help staff with personal and work-related problems affecting their wellbeing), flexible working hours, and clear and supportive line management.

“I returned to work gradually, under the guidance of my head of department, doctors and HR,” one journalist from Hertfordshire, who had to take three months off for her second anorexia inpatient admission, tells me. “I was immensely lucky in that my line manager, head of department and HR department were extremely understanding and told me to take as much time as I needed.”

“They didnt make me feel embarrassed or ashamed – such feelings came from myself”

“They knew that mental health – along with my anorexia I had severe depression – was the real reason I was off work ... I felt that my workplace handled my case in an exemplary manner. It was organised and professional and I wasn’t made to feel embarrassed or ashamed from them – such feelings came from myself.”

But she still at times felt “flaky”, “pathetic” and “inefficient”, despite her organisation’s good attitude. Indeed, many I speak to say general attitudes have to change in order for people to feel comfortable about disclosing conditions to even the closest friends and family, let alone a boss.

“There are levels of pride,” says one man in his thirties who hid his addiction while at work. “You know you’re a mess, but society dictates you should be functioning.” He says this makes it hard to have “the mental courage” to broach this with your employer. “Especially in a small company – you don’t have a confidential person to turn to. Everyone knows everyone.”

“But you can’t expect companies to deal with it properly when it’s dealt with so poorly in society as it is,” he adds. “It’s massively stigmatised, so of course it’s going to be within companies as well. I think there has to be a lot more done generally to make it not seem like it’s such a big personal failing to become mentally ill. Companies need direction; it’s not an easy thing to deal with.”

Until we live in a society where it feels as natural taking a day off for feeling mentally unwell as it does for the flu, companies will have to step up. It is, after all, in their interest to have their staff performing well. When around one in four people in Britain experience mental ill health each year, it’s not a problem they can afford to ignore.

If your manager doesn’t create the space for you to be able to talk about wellbeing, it can be more difficult to start this dialogue. It depends on the relationship you have with your manager, but if you have a good relationship and trust them, then you could meet them one-to-one to discuss what’s going on.

Having someone from HR present will make the meeting more formal, and normally wouldn’t be necessary in the first instance. But if you didn’t get anywhere with the first meeting then it might be a sensible next step.

If you still feel as though you’re not getting the support you need, contact Acas or Mind's legal line on 0300 466 6463.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, IRAN