Northern Ireland

Martin McGuinness a 'statesman', says Sir Nigel Hamilton

Sir Nigel first shook hands with Martin McGuinness in 1999 Image copyright NI Department of Education
Image caption Sir Nigel first shook hands with Martin McGuinness when he became education minister in 1999

A former head of the Civil Service in Northern Ireland has praised Martin McGuinness' time as a minister and described him as a "statesman".

Sir Nigel Hamilton said the Sinn Féin politician, who died this week, had proved many doubters wrong.

"He was appointed a minister, and deputy first minister but in my judgement he became a statesman," said Sir Nigel.

"He helped to solve many issues, he was determined to make things work."

In 1999, Sir Nigel was the first senior civil servant to shake hands in public with Mr McGuinness, a former IRA commander.

The handshake came at a time when many unionist politicians would not engage directly with Sinn Féin, and some refused to even share television studios with the party.

Sir Nigel was the permanent secretary in Stormont's Department of Education when Mr McGuinness was appointed education minister on 30 November 1999.

"This was the very first Sinn Féin minister in the history of Northern Ireland," said Sir Nigel.

"There was a mixture of apprehension, of curiosity and disbelief that this man had been appointed as the minister."

On his first full day in office, Mr McGuinness travelled to the department's headquarters in Bangor, County Down.

Sir Nigel was waiting outside the building, surrounded by a 30-strong media pack.

"As the car came in, the door opened, Martin stepped out and I shook his hand," he recalled.

"One of the press shouted: 'Hold that!'

"So we held it and this was the photograph that appeared for posterity.

Image caption A 30-strong media pack surrounded Martin McGuinness and Sir Nigel as they shook hands in 1999

"He said to me many times subsequently that one of the most important things that I did was that I shook his hand in public.

"But then I had to remind him that I had all the staff looking out the window, wondering what I was going to do and how I was going to relate to him.

"So it just seemed to me important - both for him and for the staff - that I did that.

"And I guess it was one of the many significant handshakes that he made in his life."

The former IRA commander was a controversial figure who became one of the most significant individuals in the Northern Ireland peace process.

His transition from paramilitary to politician was praised across the political divide in the aftermath of his death on Tuesday, but many IRA victims were angered and hurt by how his legacy has been assessed.

After his time in the Department of Education, Sir Nigel was later promoted to head of the Civil Service.

He was in the post when Mr McGuinness became deputy first minister of Northern Ireland in 2007, with Ian Paisley as first minister.

He said: "What you saw in public - they were affectionately known as the Chuckle Brothers - mirrored accurately how they got in private.

"They worked extremely well together, they had a respect for one another.

"If there were difficulties around executive meetings, they would have enough sense to adjourn for 20 minutes."

Mr McGuinness stayed in touch with Sir Nigel after he left the Civil Service.

"Two years after I retired, I had major surgery and he rang me at home to ask me how I was and to wish me all the best," said Sir Nigel.

In his latter years, Mr McGuinness forged a number of unlikely friendships outside his traditional republican comfort zone.

His relationship with Sir Nigel Hamilton can now be added to the list.

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