23 March 2017, St Columba's Church, Derry, Northern Ireland
Bernie, Grainne, Fionnuala, Fiachra, Emmett: members of the McGuinness family, honoured clergy, President Higgins, Taoiseach, Gerry, former Prime Minister Ahern, former President McAleese, First Minister Foster, thank you for being here, to John Hume, Peter Robinson, and all who were part of the amazing unfolding of Martin McGuinness's life.
I was thinking about it: after all the breath he expended cursing the British over the years, he worked with two Prime Ministers and shook hands with the Queen, four Taoiseachs, navigating the complex politics of the North.
As an American, I have to say a special word of appreciation to the sitting Taoiseach for what he said in the United States on St Patrick Day on behalf of the Irish immigrants.
As someone who spent sleepless nights in the beginning of the ceasefires and dealing with the aftermath of them and the Good Friday accord, I want to say a special word of appreciation to First Minister Foster for being here, because I know, and most people in this church know, that your life has been marked in painful ways by the Troubles. And I believe the only way a lasting peace can take hold and endure is if those who have legitimate griefs on both sides embrace the future together.
I learned this from Nelson Mandela who was a great friend of mine, who called me one day complaining as the president of South Africa that he was getting so much criticism. I said, "from the Afrikaners?". He said "no, from my people. They think I've sold them out." After all, he won 63% of the vote, it's inconceivable in a western democracy to do such a thing now. And I said, "what did you tell them?" and he said "I spent 27 years in jail, and they took all my best years away and i didn't see my children grow up and it ruined my marriage, and a lot of my friends were killed and if i can get over it, you can too. We've got to build a future."
Now, I want to say something about Martin McGuinness. I came to treasure every encounter. I liked him. They asked me to speak for three minutes, he could do this in 30 seconds. I can just hear him now: "Here's my eulogy: I fought, I made peace, I made politics, I had a fabulous family that somehow stayed with me and endured it all. I had friends (I was married to Gerry almost as long as I was married to Bernie). It turned out I was pretty good at all this and we got a lot done - but we didn't finish, and if you really want to honour my legacy, go make your own, and finish the work of peace so we can all have a future together."
He was only four years younger than me. He grew up at a time of rage and resentment; not only in Ireland, but across the world. And it was pronounced here: one of seven children in a Bogside family without an indoor toilet. (That's a great political story, I'm the last American president to ever live in a house without an indoor toilet and it's very much overrated except for its political value.) He was part of the rage of his time, he hated the discrimination and he decided to oppose it by whatever means available to the passionate young, including violence.
Somewhere along the way, for whatever reason, he decided to give peace a chance. Some of the reasons were principled, some were practical, but he decided. He was good about sticking at something he decided to do, and he succeeded because his word was good, his listening skills were good, he was not afraid to make a compromise, and he was strong enough to keep it if he made it.
And finally, he realised that he could have an Ireland that was free, independent and self governing, and still inclusive. That the dreams of little children were no more or less legitimate, just because of their faith background, or their families' history, or the sins of their parents. In American law, there is a phrase that comes from the 18th century, called "corruption of the blood", that the sins of the parents used to be visited on their children, and their grandchildren, and their great grandchildren, and we specifically prohibited that; easy to say, hard to do. He was trying to do it.
Most of the publicity Martin got as a politician was the very absurd notion that he actually got along with Ian Paisley. I thought it great that he got a word in edgeways, I never could! But the thing I think he was proudest of that I loved to listen to him talk about, and we talked about it again three years ago this month when we walked across the bridge here with John Hume, was when he became education minister in the transitional government. His first budget recommended a more than generous allocation in aid to the poorest schools in the protestant neighbourhoods, because he thought those children would be just as a crippled by ignorance as catholic children would, and that the only way out of poverty, and the only way to give people the emotional space to live together, work together, and share the future together, is if they could have the dignity of a decent job, and the empowerment of knowing they can take care of their families and give something more to their children. I could tell he was proud as punch with himself. Normally it's not a good thing to be proud of yourself but I think if there's a secret category of things you can be proud of, taking care of the children of people with whom you had been at odds is surely on that small list."
So that's what he did, he persevered, and he prevailed. He risked the rejection of his comrades and the wrath of his adversaries. He made honourable compromises and was strong enough to keep them, and came to be trusted because his word was good. And he never stopped being who he was; a good husband, a good father, a faithful follower of the faith of his father and mother, and a passionate believer in a free, secure, self-governing Ireland. The only thing that happened was: he expanded the definition of "us" and shrank the definition of "them".
The world in every period of insecurity faces a new wave of tribalism. If you really came here to celebrate his life, and to honour the contribution of the last chapter of it, you have to finish his work, a great son of Derry. Our friend Seamus Heaney in his Nobel prize speech, said that the secret of his success was "deciding to walk on air against your better judgement". Believe me; when the people who made this peace did it, every single one of them decided to take a flying leap into the unknown against their better judgement. It's about the only thing aside from your faith and your love which makes life worth living.
Our friend earned this vast crowd today. Even more; he earned the right to ask us to honour his legacy by our living. To finish the work that is there to be done.
God bless you.