Twenty years after the IRA cease­fire, former po­lice chief Peter Sheri­dan – who be­lieves Martin McGuin­ness tried to kill him three times – looks back on tur­bu­lent times

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - Gerry Mo­ri­arty

North­ern Ed­i­tor

North­ern Ire­land is a com­pli­cated place, Peter Sheri­dan says. He liked Martin McGuin­ness and they be­came friends. Over the years they dis­cussed, rather obliquely, the na­ture of good and evil. The IRA cease­fire of July 20th, 1997, al­lowed that cu­ri­ous re­la­tion­ship to de­velop.

And it is more than cu­ri­ous be­cause on at least three oc­ca­sions, Sheri­dan is ab­so­lutely cer­tain, McGuin­ness tried to have him mur­dered by the IRA.

Sheri­dan and the late McGuin­ness were two Derry com­man­ders, one of the po­lice, the other of the IRA. Their ca­reer paths, so to speak, took dif­fer­ent tra­jec­to­ries but there was a con­ver­gence in the end.

That did not hap­pen un­til after the fi­nal IRA cease­fire that took place this month 20 years ago. That ces­sa­tion re­vived faded hope and set in train events that resulted in the Belfast Agree­ment, Sinn Féin sup­port­ing polic­ing and jus­tice, and a power-shar­ing ad­min­is­tra­tion that worked for the guts of 10 years un­til its col­lapse at the start of this year.

In more re­cent years, the two former com­man­ders oc­ca­sion­ally ap­peared speak­ing on the same plat­form, McGuin­ness as Sinn Féin deputy first min­is­ter, Sheri­dan as chief ex­ec­u­tive of Co-op­er­a­tion Ire­land, an or­gan­i­sa­tion which pro­motes all- is­land peace-build­ing.

“I used to say that I spent longer in Martin McGuin­ness’s house than he did,” says Sheri­dan, who was a chief su­per­in­ten­dent in Derry. It was a line he oc­ca­sion­ally used as an ice-breaker, to lighten up a tense sit­u­a­tion or au­di­ence. The point he was mak­ing was that dur­ing the Trou­bles McGuin­ness fre­quently was on the run, away from his wife Bernie and four chil­dren, and Sheri­dan was out to nail him. He never did.

First at­tempt

The first time Martin McGuin­ness al­most took Sheri­dan’s life was in March 1987. Sheri­dan was a uni­form sergeant called to the scene of the IRA killing of 61-year-old Leslie Jarvis, who was shot sev­eral times while sit­ting in his car out­side Magee Col­lege in Derry. Jarvis was deemed a “le­git­i­mate tar­get” be­cause he taught leather­work at Mag­illi­gan prison in Co Derry. Eye­wit­nesses noted how ca­su­ally the killers had walked away.

“I looked in the car and I could clearly see he was dead. I could see his brief­case in the back seat. Then the de­tec­tives, Austin Wil­son and John Ben­ni­son, took over. They asked to bor­row my torch. I re­mem­ber them bend­ing down to study the tax disc on the car as I walked away. Then the car ex­ploded.”

Both of­fi­cers were killed in­stantly. Sheri­dan was lucky; he sus­tained in­juries to his side that re­quired a hospi­tal op­er­a­tion and resulted in a per­fo­rated eardrum. He still has ear prob­lems.

After killing Jarvis the IRA unit had sub­sti­tuted his brief case with one con­tain­ing a bomb. What was ad­di­tion­ally cold-hearted about the killings was that, as an IRA mem­ber told writ­ers the late Liam Clarke and his wife Kathy John­ston, McGuin­ness was stand­ing in a house op­po­site ob­serv­ing the op­er­a­tion, sat­is­fied in his terms that it was clin­i­cal and suc­cess­ful.

The two other oc­ca­sions were in the 1990s. In the first in­ci­dent gar­daí found ev­i­dence on a man they stopped in Co Done­gal about a plan to place a bomb un­der Sheri­dan’s car while he was at Mass. It had all the de­tails – about his wife Michelle, his young boy and girl, the time and place he reg­u­larly at­tended Mass. The fam­ily had to move home for sev­eral months that time, as they did again dur­ing 1996-1997 when Sheri­dan was warned the IRA planned an at­tack at his house.

Re­flect­ing on the fact that the IRA was pre­pared to kill him at his place of wor­ship and in his home Sheri­dan takes a lit­tle di­gres­sion to pon­der on what some vic­tims mean when they say they want jus­tice: “Is jus­tice for me the guy who was car­ry­ing the in­for­ma­tion? Or is jus­tice the guy who is mak­ing the bomb, or the guy who is go­ing to plant the bomb or who took the house over, or the guy who hi­jacked the car?

“Or the guy who was do­ing the clear-up af­ter­wards? Or the guy who au­tho­rised it? Or the guy who was sit­ting at Mass op­po­site me on Sun­day tak­ing down de­tails in­stead of say­ing his prayers? When peo­ple talk about vic­tims and jus­tice, what do they mean? Do they mean the guy who pulled the trig­ger or the 20 other peo­ple who were in­volved?”

Nell McCaf­ferty and a soup

We are in 57-year-old Sheri­dan’s Co-op­er­a­tion Ire­land of­fice off the Sandy Row in south Belfast. The brief is to chat about the 20th an­niver­sary of the fi­nal IRA cease­fire, which Sheri­dan is happy to do but he likes to tell sto­ries to il­lus­trate a point, and these sto­ries some­how keep com­ing back to Martin McGuin­ness.

Next up is the para­ble of Nell McCaf­ferty and the soup.

Sheri­dan was in Dublin in 2004 when he spot­ted McCaf­ferty’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Nell, in a shop in Grafton Street. He bought a copy. He rang her and told her he re­fused to read it un­less she signed it. “I’ll be in the Bog­side vis­it­ing my mother on Satur­day and if you’re big enough you can come over and I’ll sign it,” said McCaf­ferty.

This was a time of the per­ma­nent IRA ces­sa­tion, of course, but Sinn Féin still hadn’t en­dorsed the PSNI and there­fore Sheri­dan was per­sona non grata in the area – and that’s not to con­sider the threat from lo­cal dis­si­dents.

“On the Satur­day I told Michelle I was go­ing over to the Bog­side to get Nell to sign the book, that I’d just be a few min­utes. My wife said, ‘Are you mad?’”

“Nell met me at the door, fag in one hand, hair out to here. ‘Come on in and see my mother, she’s had a stroke’, said Nell. She sat me on a com­mode on the side of bed. There was a bell push which she had bro­ken, so she got me a screw­driver and asked: ‘Can you fix that eff­ing thing?’”

‘Top cop’

“I had the car parked at the door and was sup­posed to be out in two min­utes. ‘He’s a top cop, Mammy’, Nell told her mother.” Mrs McCaf­ferty in turn told Sheri­dan about her grand­fa­ther, “the good Sgt Duffy, an RIC [Royal Ir­ish Con­stab­u­lary] of­fi­cer”.

He was in the house for three hours. Be­fore leav­ing McCaf­ferty in­sisted he have a bowl of soup which she pre­sented on a tray with a doily, and a French roll be­side the bowl. “Things are look­ing up in your world, I said. And Nell said, ‘ Do you know who made it? Peggy McGuin­ness.’ So, I took out my po­lice busi­ness card and wrote: ‘Peggy, won­der­ful soup.’”

As it hap­pened he and the then PSNI chief con­sta­ble Sir Hugh Orde were sum­moned to Down­ing Street very shortly af­ter­wards for a first meet­ing with Gerry Adams, Martin McGuin­ness and Gerry Kelly with Tony Blair and his chief of staff Jonathan Pow­ell at­tempt­ing to per­suade Sinn Féin to sup­port the PSNI.

It was a com­bat­ive enough af­fair, ac­cord­ing to Sheri­dan: “There was no shak­ing hands or any­thing like that at the start. Gerry did say some­thing like, ‘ You are wel­come.’ And I said to him point­ing at Blair: ‘You’d think it was your house; Down­ing Street be­longs to that boy over there.’”

They even­tu­ally got down to two hours of “ro­bust” talks. At the end as peo­ple were leav­ing the cab­i­net of­fice it was just him and McGuin­ness in the room. “A lot of things were go­ing on in my head. I was con­scious that my clos­est friend’s fa­ther was mur­dered by the IRA when she was 12 years of age. I re­mem­bered all the coffins [of po­lice of­fi­cers] I walked be­hind. Martin was last out and I shook hands with him but I kept a grip of his hand. I said to him: ‘Your mother makes great soup.’ And he looks at me and says: ‘How do you know my mother makes great soup?’ ‘I had a bowl of it last Satur­day. Make sure you come back to the next meet­ing and I will tell you about it then.’

“Of course Martin found out from Peggy what hap­pened. He told her: ‘Me and Gerry Adams are ne­go­ti­at­ing with the Peel­ers, not you and Nell McCaf­ferty’s mother.’”

Sheri­dan joined the Royal Ul­ster Con­stab­u­lary cadets as a 16-year-old in 1976 at the height of the Trou­bles and at a time when 26-year-old McGuin­ness al­ready was a sea­soned IRA leader in Derry.

Sheri­dan had ap­plied un­suc­cess­fully to the Lon­don Metropoli­tan Po­lice. He had also ap­plied to the Garda Síochána. “I am still wait­ing for an an­swer.” His par­ents were wor­ried about his join­ing the RUC but his grand­mother, An­nie, who lived with the fam­ily, in her own dis­tinc­tive way, sorted every­body out. “If he is born to be shot he will never be drowned,” she coun­selled.

Dis­tin­guished ca­reer

He rose to the rank of as­sis­tant chief con­sta­ble and was in line to be the first Catholic chief con­sta­ble of the force. But the tim­ing was not just right for him and in 2008 after 32 years he quit the PSNI. He had a dis­tin­guished ca­reer, just as, in his terms, McGuin­ness had, ris­ing to be over­all chief of the IRA and later to deputy first min­is­ter. Sheri­dan grad­u­ated from the FBI academy in 1999 and also holds an hon­ours de­gree in ap­plied sci­ences and a masters in crim­i­nol­ogy from Cam­bridge Univer­sity.

Sheri­dan is a re­laxed and easy man to chat to but there is no doubt­ing he has a fixed moral code. His re­la­tion­ship with McGuin­ness was not a lovey-dovey one. “Yes, I was pretty clear-think­ing. I have al­ways thought to have such in­dif­fer­ence to hu­man life you have to have a de­praved heart. I can’t ra­tio­nalise it. It does not mat­ter if it is here or in Syria,” he says.

“To change things you do have to en­gage with peo­ple on the terms of your val­ues in the hope that their val­ues come to meet yours, or they change, or they reignite the val­ues that they had when they be­gan or when they were younger.”

Sheri­dan says some of the as­sess­ment of McGuin­ness has been ei­ther Bill Clin­ton’s ha­gio­graphic ver­dict on him as a peacemaker or Gre­gory Camp­bell’s dis­mis­sive re­jec­tion of him. Some­where be­tween the two is prob­a­bly the fairest judg­ment, Sheri­dan reck­ons.

The RUC were never able to get McGuin­ness on a se­ri­ous “be­yond prob­a­bil­ity” charge in North­ern Ire­land de­spite all the po­lice vis­its to his Bog­side house and other in­ves­ti­ga­tions. “We did not con­vict Martin McGuin­ness in this life. It is un­fair there­fore morally and eth­i­cally to con­vict him in the next life. That is some­body else’s job.”

Sheri­dan also ac­knowl­edges that hav­ing been brought up rel­a­tively com­fort­ably near En­niskillen in ru­ral Co Fer­managh, that he en­joyed dif­fer­ent life ex­pe­ri­ences to McGuin­ness. “I did not know him when he grew up in poverty in the Bog­side. He elected to go the route of vi­o­lence, to right those wrongs as he saw it. I could never see how it was right, even in a war sit­u­a­tion, to slip out of your bed at night to go and put a bomb un­der some­body else’s car, an­other hu­man be­ing’s car, and go back to bed again.”

Over the years Sheri­dan says they had care­ful talks on these big is­sues: “I still think he was wrong and I would have had that dis­cus­sion with him. John Hume did not do it. There were other choices, there were other ways. “I did get to know him in the last 20 years of his life. I got to know him as a per­son; [we talked] about the jour­neys we had made. I think he grew to un­der­stand that he was more suc­cess­ful in the last 20 years of his life than in the pre­vi­ous 20 years. I of­ten won­der if he had to do it all again what he would say to him­self.”

As chief ex­ec­u­tive of Co-op­er­a­tion Ire­land, Sheri­dan was in­volved in some mile­stone mo­ments, and again Martin McGuin­ness was a piv­otal and sup­port­ive fig­ure.

And while it in­volved risks on McGuin­ness’s part he none­the­less par­tic­i­pated with a full heart in his his­toric hand­shake meet­ing with Queen Eliz­a­beth at the Lyric The­atre in Belfast in 2012. When Pres­i­dent Michael D Hig­gins was hosted by the queen at Wind­sor Cas­tle in 2014 again McGuin­ness turned up for the din­ner in his white tie and tails. As Sheri­dan con­firms, he also helped fa­cil­i­tate Gerry Adams’s first meet­ing in Gal­way in 2015 with Prince Charles.

These were im­por­tant mo­ments that as­sisted in the process to­wards greater rec­on­cil­i­a­tion on the is­land and be­tween the is­lands. But the last such ini­tia­tive went badly. That was in Novem­ber last year when McGuin­ness trav­elled to Lon­don for an­other Co-op­er­a­tion Ire­land event, the un­veil­ing of a por­trait of Queen Eliz­a­beth by the North­ern Ire­land artist Colin David­son and at­tended by the queen.

At the time it was viewed by many repub­li­cans as one grand ges­ture too many be­cause these acts of gen­eros­ity were viewed

‘ di‘ We d not con­vict Martin McGuin­ness in this life. It is un­fair there­fore morally and eth­i­cally to con­vict him in the next life. That is some­body else’s job

as not be­ing re­cip­ro­cated by Ar­lene Fos­ter and the DUP. It was the start of the slide to­wards McGuin­ness walk­ing away from the North­ern Ex­ec­u­tive. McGuin­ness gave Sheri­dan some gyp about that en­gage­ment. “I met him next day in Stor­mont. He gave off to me about it be­cause he got a lot of grief from his own peo­ple,” Sheri­dan re­calls.

Sheri­dan told him that other lead­ers from the North and the Repub­lic had also at­tended the event and that if McGuin­ness wasn’t in at­ten­dance what would peo­ple have said. Still, he un­der­stands that there­after, be­tween the po­lit­i­cal pres­sures and his ill­ness, McGuin­ness “be­gan to feel it was get­ting away from him”.

The IRA ended its 1994 ces­sa­tion on July 9th, 1996, with the Ca­nary Wharf bomb­ing that killed two civil­ians. In the fol­low­ing 17 months it waged a limited cam­paign dur­ing which it killed eight peo­ple; three civil­ians in­clud­ing the Lon­don vic­tims, two RUC of­fi­cers, two Bri­tish soldiers and garda Jerry Mc­Cabe in Lim­er­ick. No one was killed by the IRA in Derry dur­ing that pe­riod.

The ar­rival of Tony Blair and Ber­tie Ah­ern as the new Bri­tish and Ir­ish lead­ers in 1997, to­gether with Lon­don drop­ping its de­mand for IRA de­com­mis­sion­ing be­fore Sinn Féin could en­ter mul­ti­party talks, cre­ated the con­di­tions for the sec­ond cease­fire on July 20th that year. Present and fu­ture

And progress, of­ten slow, fre­quently stag­gered, con­tin­ued to be made since then. But pol­i­tics is back at a sour stage after all the con­vul­sions of the past eight or nine months. The con­di­tions are there for gov­ern­ment but the two main par­ties, the DUP and Sinn Féin, can’t agree to gov­ern.

“I worry that the only cer­tainty is un­cer­tainty,” says Sheri­dan. He says what is needed are new party man­i­festos: “But the only thing you will write in the man­i­festo is what you are go­ing to do to pro­tect the other’s rights, cul­ture and tra­di­tions. To the DUP what will you do to pro­tect the cul­ture and rights of Catholics; to Sinn Féin what are you go­ing to do to pro­tect the cul­tural tra­di­tions of Protes­tants in­clud­ing the Or­ange Or­der? And then we will see how se­ri­ous they are about rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.”

Sheri­dan also has a con­cern about Brexit and how that un­known will af­fect com­mu­nity re­la­tions. He re­cently showed the Euro­pean Union’s chief Brexit ne­go­tia­tor, Michel Barnier, around the Bor­der.

“I said to Barnier: ‘Do you see the Bor­der there?’ And he said no. ‘That’s the idea,’ I said. ‘We want to keep it like that.’”

Sheri­dan pro­vided Barnier with a snappy back-to-the-fu­ture ver­sion of the dan­gers of a hard Bor­der, and how dis­si­dent repub­li­cans would see it as an op­por­tu­nity to be seized. He said to him: “If you think it’s just a ques­tion of putting up cus­toms posts then you will have made a mis­take. If there are shots fired at cus­toms posts then po­lice will be re­quired to pro­tect cus­toms of­fi­cers. And if shots are fired at the po­lice then the army might be re­quired to pro­tect po­lice of­fi­cers. Then if they shoot at the army you will need to build watch­tow­ers and per­ma­nent check­points and close Bor­der roads.” Sheri­dan reck­ons Barnier got the pic­ture.

Some 20 years on from a time of great hope it all sounds de­flat­ing. “I am not with­out hope, far from it, but it is hard work,” says Sheri­dan.

Sheri­dan found it in­ter­est­ing how after Trevor McBride took the pho­to­graphs for this ar­ti­cle he (Sheri­dan) was stopped in Portrush by a se­nior DUP politi­cian who can­didly said to him in the course of their con­ver­sa­tion: “We miss Martin McGuin­ness.”

Sheri­dan says that he and McGuin­ness never shared fam­ily bar­be­cues but there was a real bond, not­with­stand­ing that McGuin­ness could have planted him in an early grave. When he sought his as­sis­tance, ei­ther in his polic­ing days or when wear­ing his Co-op­er­a­tion Ire­land hat, McGuin­ness de­liv­ered, re­gard­less of po­lit­i­cal and per­sonal risks. That bowl of Peggy McGuin­ness’s soup, Sheri­dan says, helped in sub­se­quent joint en­ter­prises.

“I do think we miss his skills, his abil­ity with peo­ple, his abil­ity to get on with peo­ple and his abil­ity to stretch peo­ple just far enough that we made progress each time. Peo­ple have asked me did I like Martin. I think peo­ple who met him found it hard not to like him.”

‘‘ I do think we miss his skills, his abil­ity with peo­ple, his abil­ity to get on with peo­ple and his abil­ity to stretch peo­ple just far enough that we made progress. Peo­ple have asked me did I like Martin. I think peo­ple who met him found it hard not to like him

Mile­stone mo­ments

Peter Sheri­dan: “I have al­ways thought to have such in­dif­fer­ence to hu­man life you have to have a de­praved heart. I can’t ra­tio­nalise it.” PHO­TO­GRAPH: TREVOR MCBRIDE

Queen Eliz­a­beth shakes hands with Peter Sheri­dan from Co-op­er­a­tion Ire­land, as Prince Philip meets Martin McGuin­ness, then North­ern Ire­land deputy first min­is­ter, at the Lyric The­atre in Belfast in 2012. PHO­TO­GRAPH: PAUL FAITH/AFP/GETTY IM­AGES

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