The issue of whether or not Gerry Adams was a member of the IRA during the Troubles is irrelevant, Martin McGuinness has insisted.
Stormont’s Deputy First Minister on Tuesday refused to answer an Assembly question on the specific point but made clear his view that past membership of the republican organisation should not prevent anyone contributing to society in the present.
Sinn Fein president Mr Adams, who is now a TD in the Irish Republic, has consistently denied being a member of the IRA in the face of persistent claims to the contrary by political rivals and former colleagues in the republican movement.
During question time in the Assembly, the Democratic Unionists’ Thomas Buchanan asked Mr McGuinness, himself a former IRA commander in Londonderry, if he believed Mr Adams.
The Sinn Fein veteran replied: “I am on the public record that I was a member of the IRA.
“It didn’t do me any harm getting elected in mid Ulster. The people of south Derry and east Tyrone, whenever they made a decision to make me their MP in 1997, did so because they believed I was absolutely committed to building the peace process, because they wanted peace and they saw my contribution to that as being an important contribution.
“I hope I have made an important contribution and I think those people who make the argument that you can’t further contribute to society in a meaningful way because you were a member of the IRA in the past, they are making a huge mistake, they are making a huge mistake.”
When pressed by unionists on the opposing benches to answer Mr Buchanan’s question about Mr Adams, he said: “It’s irrelevant, it’s totally irrelevant.”
Instead Mr McGuinness said Mr Adams had made a “massive contribution” to peace.
He added: “Sometimes it is probably now and again worth asking from some of the most negative elements who try to use these situations against the peace process what contribution have they made?”
Earlier West Tyrone MLA Mr Buchanan had asked the deputy first minister if he thought the time had come for paramilitaries to come clean about their past.
Mr McGuinness said the issue of the past presented a challenge to everyone involved in the conflict, including state forces.
“There is no moral high ground for anybody in relation to all of this,” he said.
Former US diplomat Dr Richard Haass is currently chairing political talks with the five main parties at Stormont in a bid to achieve an agreed approach to dealing with the legacy of the Troubles and resolution to long-standing disputes on flags and parades.
Mr McGuinness said a failure by local politicians to find solutions would leave openings for dissident republicans and loyalist paramilitaries to exploit to attack the power-sharing institutions.
He claimed dissidents behind a series of failed bomb attacks in recent weeks were “living in cloud cuckoo land” while he accused the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and elements within the Orange Order of fomenting the loyalist disorder that has broken out on a number of occasions in north Belfast in the last year.
“Yes we need solutions to parades, we need solutions to flags and we need a solution to the past,” he said.
“And I think it is incumbent on all of us to do everything in our power to try and find solutions to these problems because, if we don’t find solutions to the problems, all we do is leave openings for those who wish to exploit their agenda - which is clearly an anti-Assembly agenda, it is an anti-Executive agenda, it is an anti-peace process agenda.
“So I think what we have to do is do our job as politicians, come up with results, whilst at the same time giving our wholehearted support to the police as they combat the lawbreakers.”
Mr McGuinness said he was in no doubt that the UVF was behind plans for another loyalist march in Belfast this weekend to mark the first anniversary of the decision by Belfast City Council to limit the flying of the Union flag at City Hall.