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?
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.