ROME — Northern Ireland’s Protestant Unionist party used to accuse Martin McGuinness of being a commander of the Irish Republican Army.

Today, however, decades of sectarian fighting have ended and McGuinness, a Catholic, is now leading Northern Ireland’s governing assembly with his former Unionist opponent, Rev. Ian Paisley. McGuinness spoke with Register Correspondent Edward Pentin Nov. 24 in Rome at last month’s consistory of cardinals, six months after his election as Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister.

How important is Archbishop Sean Brady of Armagh’s appointment as cardinal, to you personally and to Northern Ireland?

I think it’s of momentous importance that the archbishop, effectively the archbishop of Armagh, the primate of all Ireland, is now elevated to the position of cardinal. It’s a personal honor for one of the most humble priests on the island of Ireland.

It’s also a tremendous honor for the people of Ireland, and I think everyone will be overjoyed that we now have three cardinals on the island.

How will his appointment help this process of peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland?

Sean Brady has been a great supporter of the peace process and of the need to implement the Good Friday Agreement over the course of many years. He has been a real friend of the peace process.

He has worked with others within other churches to bring about further peace and reconciliation among all people, and I think this is a further boost to all of those efforts. There’s also a very clear recognition by the Pope of the tremendous political breakthrough that there has been on the island of Ireland in the course of this year.

The situation has been transformed. We now have a very peaceful situation with everyone moving forward to deal with the everyday issues that affect people in their lives and the economy. I think, as we move forward into what is uncharted waters for us, with myself and Ian Paisley in government, it’s absolutely essential that we all work together.

I think someone like Sean Brady encourages us all to do that and is tremendous help.

The Pope is said to be looking at the possibility of making a trip to Northern Ireland. Is this likely to happen?

We would all be overjoyed by a visit by the Pope to the north. Obviously, at the time of Pope John Paul II, we had a situation where he clearly wasn’t able to do that. He could only come as far as Drogheda.

I don’t know if it’s possible for the Pope to do that, the Pope obviously has a very heavy itinerary, but if it was possible, I think all Catholic communities on the island of Ireland, would be absolutely delighted and overjoyed to see that happen.

How are you getting on with Ian Paisley?

The situation is absolutely tremendous and has been transformed beyond imagination. Ian Paisley and I are now in government together, working very positively and constructively with one another.

We’ve met every day in a very cordial and civilized atmosphere during the six months we have been in government together. There hasn’t been one angry word between the two of us.

I think Ian Paisley summed it up best of all at the aftermath of the North-South Ministerial Council in Armagh that was attended by the Taoiseach [the Republic of Ireland’s Prime Minister], Ian Paisley, myself, and all of our ministers — north and south. He said it was now time to end the old hatreds and divisions of the past and work together.

So that’s the spirit in which we’re all moving forward and I think it has the overwhelming support of the people.

You have quite a past. How is that hindering or benefiting you in your current role?

Well Ian Paisley has a past; I have a past — there are few people on the island of Ireland, if you go back into the annals of history, who don’t have a past. I don’t think it’s a big hindrance at all.

I would like to believe that Ian Paisley and I working together in government are showing a good example to everybody in the community, that we’re an inspiration for people. If he and I can come together and make agreements on, for example, agreeing a draft budget, a draft program for government and an investment strategy for the next 10 years, that has to be the most potent and powerful example to anyone, not just on the island of Ireland but indeed anywhere on this planet where there is quite a lot of conflict, a lot of wars, a lot of violence and a lot of death.

So you’re very optimistic about the future?

I am very, very optimistic and I think the situation is bursting will all sorts of wonderful possibilities.

Edward Pentin writes

from Rome.