Newport's World Peace Bell will peal Wednesday for its most controversial ringer yet, a man banned as a terrorist by the British government in 1982. Martin McGuinness is no low-level bomb-thrower but the chief negotiator for Sinn Fein, the Northern Ireland political party that's championed independence from Great Britain. Reviled by many Protestants in Northern Ireland, McGuinness is the former commander of the provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Londonderry.
Although Sinn Fein declared a unilateral cease-fire four years ago and McGuinness is a minister in the new government formed through peace talks, his past distinguishes him from other dignitaries who have visited the World Peace Bell.
"We're breaking new ground here," says attorney Mark Guilfoyle, a major Democratic player in Northern Kentucky. "We very bluntly don't know what the reception's going to be."
Guilfoyle, a member of former Gov. Brereton Jones' administration, is a confidante of Gov. Paul Paxton and is widely expected to run for state office in the near future. Those don't sound like the makings of a radical, but Guilfoyle is among those hosting McGuinness for a fund-raiser for Sinn Fein.
"There's no question Martin McGuinness will stir some strong feelings in some quarters," Guilfoyle says.
Why would Guilfoyle risk being involved in such an event? Precisely because McGuinness represents peace
"There's been a history there, but our purpose is to look forward," Guilfoyle says. "One of the reasons he is coming is to overtly and strongly demonstrate he and his party are committed to peace. The proof is in the pudding. I did not support Sinn Fein until they supported the peace accord."
McGuinness is generally regarded the second most important figure in Sinn Fein, after Gerry Adams. Both men won election to Parliament last year but have refused to take their seats because of a requirement to swear allegiance to England's Queen Elizabeth. When President Clinton granted Adams a one-day visa to visit the United States, he was widely criticized in Great Britain. But the Good Friday peace accords have made Sinn Fein respectable, even though the IRA hasn't yet disarmed.
The ceremony Wednesday honors McGuinness not for fighting for his cause but for working for peace, according to Joseph Bride, spokesman for the World Peace Bell.
"What we're talking about here is a change of heart and a change of direction," Bride says. "It would be shortsighted and churlish to not recognize that, without the participation of his organization, some of the more stubborn Irish groups, the peace effort would never have started."
Pat Mallory, president of the Cincinnati Chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, says he was excited to learn McGuinness is coming to Greater Cincinnati -- and flabbergasted to hear what he'll be doing.
"We fell off our chairs when we heard he's coming here," Mallory says. "In his heyday, he was commander of the Provisionals in Derry, just as Gerry Adams was in Belfast. These are the guys that were on the front lines of the battle. He's going to come to ring the Peace Bell. What will they think of next?"
Mallory says he hopes McGuinness' visit will counter pro-British media bias in many depictions of Northern Ireland. From Tom Clancy's novels to Harrison Ford's films, the IRA is usually cast as terrorists, not freedom fighters.
"It's always the IRA, the IRA," Mallory says. "What about the mobs going in and burning Catholic neighborhoods while the British troops were standing around looking at birds fly away? What about the guy with six kids who was murdered, and his only crime was going to Mass on Sunday?"
If the Troubles are ending in Northern Ireland, who better to ring the bell for peace than Martin McGuinness?
"That is not a political event," Guilfoyle says. "It has nothing to do with Irish politics but with the World Peace Bell's mission, which is a commitment to peace."
The Friends of Sinn Fein host Martin McGuinness at Jack Quinn's Irish Ale House in Covington at 7 p.m. Wednesday. Tickets for dinner are $100. An after-dinner reception is $25. For tickets, call 859-426-2138.
BURNING QUESTIONS is our weekly attempt to afflict the comfortable.