Post-Troubles: Paisley, McGuinness and Bill Thompson

Martin McGuinness, the onetime IRA commander who is now the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, expressed his love for New York during his visit yesterday, shortly after a press conference at which city comptroller Bill Thompson announced a $150 million investment in the region’s infrastructure.

McGuinness pronounced New York “one of the greatest cities on earth,” and said, “It is one of the most vibrant places you could ever hope to be. It is absolutely incredible to walk down any of the avenues, see the cosmopolitan nature of it and see everybody getting on well together.”

It was a notably optimistic and harmonious note from McGuinness. The senior Sinn Fein figure got himself into hot water in February when he told an Irish radio show how, in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday in 1972, he would have liked “to kill every single British soldier” in his hometown of Derry.

On Bloody Sunday, a watershed event in the Irish “Troubles,” British paratroopers opened fire on unarmed civil rights marchers. They killed thirteen people, six of them under the age of 18. A fourteenth person died several months later as a result of his injuries. McGuinness has acknowledged being second in command of the IRA in the city at the time.

All that being so, the scene in the comptroller’s office in lower Manhattan was another sign of the distance traveled over the course of the Irish peace process. McGuinness, Thompson and Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Ian Paisley, posed, smiling, for photographers.

Paisley has for decades been the figurehead of the most hard-line elements within pro-British unionism as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) — and was always seen as an implacable foe of the IRA. But he and McGuinness have been the two leading figures in the power-sharing government in Belfast since they were sworn in last May. Paisley, who turned 82 earlier this week, has announced he will step down as DUP leader and First Minister next month.

Speaking at the press conference, Paisley declared himself uncharacteristically close to “speechless” about the significance of the announcement. Under its terms, $150 million of the New York City Pension Funds will be invested in the newly-minted Emerald Infrastructure Development Fund. Between 50 and 65 per cent of that money will go toward projects that operate either exclusively in Northern Ireland or on both sides of the Irish border.

Thompson asserted that Northern Ireland presented “a great opportunity for investors” and added, “We will continue to prudently assess other investment opportunities created by the dawn of this new era of peace.”

The announcement also came as a big boost to the Irish politicians as they try to spur interest in a major investment conference that will take place in Belfast early next month. That conference has been endorsed by the U.S. administration and the British and Irish governments. Mayor Michael Bloomberg will attend as the administration’s representative.

McGuinness was keen to emphasize that he and Paisley were not seeking charity.

“The unions today see this as a good investment for them,” he told me. “We are not coming here with a begging bowl, we are coming here on the basis of the political stability that has now occurred. There are all sorts of opportunities.”

Such investment, he added, would help improve the lot of voters on both sides of the sectarian divide: “If we can build our economy we can effectively challenge the social deprivation that many DUP voters and Sinn Fein voters and other voters face on an ongoing basis.”

Post-Troubles: Paisley, McGuinness and Bill Thompson