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The chief negotiator for Sinn Fein blamed the British government for the strife in Northern Ireland when he spoke to a Harvard audience Friday about prospects for peace in the region.
Martin McGuinness, second in command to Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams and a member of the Westminister Parliament for Sinn Fein, addressed the political issues in Ireland to about 500 people at the ARCO Forum.
"I think the prospects for peace are better than they have been in the last 70 years...we need peace," McGuinness said. "But we also need an end to inequality, injustice and discrimination...all of which have been endured by the people I represent."
From the beginning, McGuinness engaged the audience with his Irish sense of humor, emphasizing his republican message.
He described three key figures in the Irish struggle stranded together in the middle of a body of water. The two Unionist leaders, Jan Paisley and David Trimble, swam to shore. But "Gerry Adams walked on water."
McGuinness focused on the importance of assigning responsibility for the conflict in Northern Ireland.
"The question is who is responsible," McGuinness said, "If the truth be told, we are all responsible."
But he then proceeded to heap blame on the British government for treating the Nationalists and Catholics in Northern Ireland as "second class citizens."
"The responsibility really wasn't with Unionists and Protestants, although they made their contribution," McGuinness said. "The responsibility for all of that had to be that the British government allowed it to happen."
McGuinness added that the Catholics remained "subservient" until the 1960s, and the British government took advantage of their "quiet" nature to manipulate them.
In an interview with The Crimson, McGuinness said that as a child, he watched British soldiers commit atrocities against Catholic citizens. According to McGuinness, this drove him to work for the Nationalist cause.
In 1971 British soldiers shot Desmond Beattie for his Nationalist activities and then carried his dead body around the streets of Derry where McGuinness grew up. McGuinness said he can still vividly recall the body riddled with bullets.
"It frightened the living daylights out of me," McGuinness said.
Attempting to elicit an emotional response from his audience, McGuinness repeatedly compared the situation in Ireland to South Africa's apartheid government.
McGuinness said the British government incorrectly viewed the struggles in Northern Ireland from a military, rather than political, perspective.
"There was a military mindset at work," McGuinness said. "[They thought that] the way to defeat resistance in Ireland was with force...that they tried to do and in that they failed."
McGuinness said he believes that discussion and compromise will produce peace in Northern Ireland.
McGuinness denied current affiliation with any group that endorses violence as a means to achieve peace.
"There isn't an organization called Sinn Fein/IRA. I am not a spokesperson for the IRA," he said. "I suppose eventually history will be told and told very honestly about all of us. I am [a member of the Westminster parliament] for Sinn Fein.
But, McGuinness told The Crimson, "I have never denied that I have been involved in resistance and struggle against the British government."
McGuinness emphasized that each group or government participating in the peace negotiations will have to take a flexible position in the discussions. He said his role is to facilitate compromise between the parties.
"Not all of the parties are going to get everything they are looking for," he said.
McGuinness said Sinn Fein demands the release of prisoners, the demilitarization of Northern Ireland and the removal of the "paraphernalia" of war from the region. He said Sinn Fein will not compromise on these issues.
"We cannot concede to change that requires British rule," he said.
In addition to finding fault with the British government, McGuinness blamed the Unionists for styming the talks. He said they refuse to listen to Sinn Fein's arguments or to compromise on any issues.
"The Unionists have confronted Sinn Fein with a wall of silence," McGuinness said. "It's a flawed negotiating program."
McGuinness attributed those flaws to the Unionists.
"Unionism is frightened. They are very afraid of change," McGuinness said. "They are more suspicious of their government than they are of Ireland's government or of ourselves."
McGuinness said he is optimistic about the future, refusing in questions from the audience to think too far beyond the settlement of the current conflict to the creation of a unified country.
"We intend to keep our nerve... we have a responsibility to try to plot a course away from conflict, away from inequality, away from injustice," he said. "This can only be solved at the negotiating table. Why should people lose their lives?"
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