I first met Martin McGuinness formally a few years ago during a short spell as shadow minister for Northern Ireland. He was Deputy First minister.
Before this first meeting Shaun Woodward, who’d recently been Northern Ireland Secretary of State, told me that however many times I met Martin McGuiness, each meeting would always feel slightly surreal. And so it was.
Polite and charming to a fault, The Deputy First Minister turned out to be. I was strolled casually into to his office by Peter Robinson, then First Minister. And if it felt strange that a DUP politician, earnest and intelligent himself, would have a rapport with a former IRA commander, this effect was slightly muted by the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction ‘Chuckle Brothers’ relationship Martin McGuiness had had with Ian Paisley for the years preceding our meeting.
Meeting Martin McGuiness as Deputy First Minister felt in many ways to me like meeting Alex Salmond as First Minister. Clever, witty and social; committed to his nationalist vision but pragmatic, and very direct too.
A dozen and a half years before, my relationship with the Deputy First Minister-to-be was vicarious. As I travelled around Derry and up and down to the border, it was made clear to me by my Army chain of command that Martin McGuinness was both an active IRA man and, in large part because of that, a central part of a then-shadowy peace process.
In between those two times, shortly after being elected to the House of Commons I sauntered on to The Terrace overlooking the Thames. There was a temporary island in the middle of the river where a Police launch was parked. Two armed cops stood on the terrace looking out for, well, terrorists I guess. Standing next to them, the only other people on the terrace, were Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, chewing the fat in the late afternoon sun. Later, at Labour Party Conference in 2009, I stood on the steps inside the foyer of the Brighton Grand Hotel and watched Martin McGuinness calmly walk up the steps past me.
If surreality followed Martin McGuinness constantly in his later years, it was because his engagement in violence, where people across all communities were hurt beyond expression, morphed quite remarkably into a commitment to peace process which has few parallels in the modern world.