The queen, the SWAT team and me

  • 22 November 2006
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I was preoccupied with whatever I was doing at the time when out of the corner of my ear I heard the clipped English accent. There was a genuinely surprised and delighted-with-itself quality to the greeting. "I'm really pleased to see you."

I looked up to see Martin McGuinness shaking hands with the white-haired, fresh-faced owner of the clipped English accent.

"I served in Derry for seven years," he told us. "A lovely place. I was with the Duke of Edinburgh's Regiment. It's disbanded since then of course. I loved Derry."

"When were you there?"

"Oh, in..."

"I'll leave you old soldiers to it," I told them.

We were on the terrace of the Palace of Westminster. The sweet Thames flowed softly beside us. A distinguished-looking gentleman joined us. He waited until I was finished my call and Martin's pal had vamoosed before he introduced himself. "I'm here as an intermediary," he proclaimed.

We looked at him eagerly. We were in London for talks with Tony Blair. We had spent the day before at Downing Street. And most of the night.

Now we were waiting to see Blair at his office at Westminster. He was also seeing Ian Paisley and the DUP. Legislation on the outworkings of the recent Saint Andrews talks was going to the parliamentary printer that night. By chance, our time at the British parliament coincided with the state opening. We were to see Blair after the Queen's Speech.

Our morning at Westminster had been eventful. Our offices were above Saint Stephen's Gate. That's above the main entrance, away up in the turrets. We came in early to avoid the queen. I was not long ensconced behind my desk when the door opened and two members of the London Metropolitan Police entered. They were followed up by a SWAT team. They stopped short in surprise when they saw me. "Sorry Mr Adams... Could we take some people out on the roof?"

I smiled at them. "You can take some people out onto the roof. But I hope you don't take anyone out on the roof."

They didn't return my smile. Not that they weren't friendly. They were. They clambered out through the window. The Met men returned a few minutes later. "Her Majesty's due soon," one of them said.

"Good," I replied. "Is it a boy or a girl?"

They looked at me strangely before exiting. A minute later Gerry Kelly ducked in. "Did I see two cops going out there?"

"Yup," I said, nodding at the open window. "I have my own SWAT team out on the roof."

He clambered out off the window also. "Be careful." He returned a second later.

"I thought you were only joking."

That's when Martin and I left for the terrace and a cup of coffee. And the intermediary.

"The speaker sent me," he said.

"The speaker?" we replied.

"The speaker says you are both very welcome to join the procession. But, however, you know if you go into the chamber you cannot cross the line. But..." I realised he was embarrassed. "But... you will be very welcome. But as you haven't taken the oath you can't sit down."

Martin and I both laughed in delight. The intermediary joined in. By now he was writhing with embarrassment.

"It's just so there are no unsavoury scenes. The speaker was concerned that nothing untoward happens."

I resisted telling him about my SWAT team and Gerry Kelly while Martin asked him to thank the speaker for his kindness.

By now I noticed the sweet Thames, flowing softly, had its own SWAT team. A big black motor launch full of them. It sped up and down. By now there was no one on the terrace except me and Martin. My coffee was getting cold. The SWAT speedboat slowed down.

"Lets go in," I said. "Just in case some of them served in Derry as well."

We made inside and back towards our offices. The place was quiet. As we padded along a corridor, I heard the unmistakeable royal drone from behind a wall.

" government will..."

I could picture the scene inside. All tiaras and ermine and fur. And that's only the men. Lord Trimble and Lady Paisley in there now. With all the rest of them.

By now Martin and I were making our way through the Great Hall where Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators were tried. The trials of Charles I and Saint Thomas Moore and William Wallace were held here as well. I paused for a minute at one of the little brass plaques that commemorate these events. What they don't tell us, for example in the case of Wallace, is that there was no jury, he had no lawyer and he was denied the right to speak.

Afterwards he was hanged, cut down while still alive and cut up. His heart, liver, lungs and entrails were burned in a fire while his body was chopped up and parts sent 'throughout the Kingdom' as a warning to others.

That was in 1305. Back in our offices, news came in from Iraq of 57 people dead in four separate attacks. We peered out as the royal procession made its sad way back to the palace. There were very few onlookers. Apart from the SWAT teams and the assorted military and naval detachments. And us. I was conscious of being very foreign.

That feeling stayed with me throughout our meetings with Mr Blair and our torturous efforts to chart a way forward alongside the frustrating, mind-numbing need to get the devil out of the details of the Saint Andrews agreement.

We left Westminster late that night. I was glad to see the back of it. And its pomp and ceremonial revision of a bloody history of conquests and conflict. In the meantime, despite it all, our little peace process inches ahead bit by bit.