MARTIN McGuinness is rarely out of the news. To some he is a patriot of deep faith, to others a blood-thirsty murderer. As his political career draws to a close it is time to examine the man and his war.
Like so many of his compatriots, he routinely felt the stinging rejection of discrimination because of his religion. Born into a large Irish Catholic family in Derry he spent his formative years in the Bogside. His mother was a Donegal woman who worked in the shirt factories, his father—a Derry man who died in 1973—worked in an iron foundry. They could have lived lives undistinguishable from the lives of other working class families in Glasgow, Liverpool or Leeds. But the circumstance of war in the province meant that their realities couldn’t have been more different.
Growing up in the Bogside in the 1970s was very different. You were a second-class citizen denied full voting rights because of gerrymandering and decent housing because you were a Catholic.
Confronted by such deep-rooted discrimination McGuinness, like many other young men and women chose to resist and joined the call for civil rights in the North of Ireland. When this largely peaceful movement was met with violence by the state often in conjunction with organised unionism some took a different road. McGuinness was one such young man who decided that the state couldn’t be reformed and that while it remained a Protestant state for a Protestant people Irish Catholics would never get a fair deal.
Armalite to ballot box
The initial strategy of the Republican Movement that McGuinness joined was to protect his community from the state. By all accounts McGuinness was immediately well regarded within Republican circles and by the time of Bloody Sunday he was seen as a significant leader in the Derry IRA.
Although he escaped internment, he served time in Portlaoise Prison. In 1974, the Special Criminal Court in Dublin convicted him for IRA membership and for finding explosives in a car in which he was travelling. Upon his release he went on the run fighting a war with the British state, gaining predictable notoriety in the British media as ‘Britain’s Number One terrorist.’
He got engaged to his wife while she was in prison for Republican activity. He recounts how he bought the engagement ring in a jeweller’s on Buncrana’s Main Street, gave it to a friend who put it on her finger during a prison visit.
The war of resistance became the long war. Trouble and tragedy affected huge swathes of the warring communities. During some of the most violent phases of the conflict McGuinness—along with Gerry Adams—were also looking to expand Republicans’ interests politically. The powerful bond between the two men led Republicans in their fight against the British, led their respective communities and led the peace process. The bonds weren’t just political, indeed Adams stayed in McGuinness’ grandmother’s house to convalesce after being shot by Loyalists in 1984. Both were from working class communities embittered by repression and both shared a commitment to the reunification of Ireland.
The political strategy began to pay off when, in 1982, he was elected to the Stormont Assembly and, after three failed attempts, he won a seat at Westminster in 1997 representing mid-Ulster. Then in 1998 he also was elected to the MLA for the same constituency. He has remained a constant elected representative since.
Republicans’ road to peace has often not been just or honourable. In 1986, Frank Hegarty—an alleged informer—was coaxed by the IRA into returning to Ireland, with his family promised that he would merely be questioned and sent on his way. Hegarty was executed; his body dumped and denied the Catholic Sacrament of Last Rites. Reliable and persistent claims placed McGuinness at Hegarty’s interrogation. The account echoes McGuinness’ chilling warning on TV in the 1980s that anyone deemed to be collaborating with the ‘security forces’ could expect to face the ultimate sanction—execution. His IRA would be judge, jury and executioner. The rule of law was suspended; the accused didn’t have access to a defence or anyone to speak for them. The IRA was a merciless organisation.
The Enniskillen and latterly Warrington atrocities shifted public consciousness in Ireland. Whereas before the nationalist public had shown some communal tolerance and tacit approval of the violence, these events rallied ordinary people in a way that threatened to undermine the community support that underlay the IRA. McGuinness condemned Enniskillen as ‘totally wrong,’ but it was sanctioned by the Northern Command of the IRA of which security forces on both sides of the border say that he was a leading member. Such was the public opprobrium that followed the Warrington bomb there were spontaneous protests against Republicans in the South and a 10,000 demonstration outside the GPO in Dublin in 1993, organised at very short notice by ordinary citizens. The mood had changed permanently and Republicans recognised this. In the perverse logic of war these atrocities strengthened the covert moves towards peace.
Pivotal to peace
As time passed, defence became offence, became stalemate. The British—early on in the conflict—recognised McGuinness as a skilful strategist and a formidable adversary. Such was the respect shown to him by the MI5 and British generals, he became a key point of contact between the warring parties and back channels were maintained throughout the conflict, interrupted only by Margaret Thatcher’s term as British Prime Minister.
McGuinness (above) became an indispensable member of the negotiating team that led to the Peace Process. Once the guns fell silent and were seen to have fallen silent McGuinness’ skill as a politician emerged.
Initially he had the education portfolio in the government and a key achievement was to do away with 11 plus selection process in the face of vigorous and organised opposition from vested interests.
He became Deputy First Minister in May 2007 when Sinn Féin and the DUP agreed to share power. Once foes, Ian Paisley and McGuinness, both pragmatists, found it relatively easy to work with each other. They had many shared values and a friendship grew. Indeed, Paisley and McGuiness once prayed together for McGuinness’ mother when her health was failing.
When Peter Robinson succeeded Paisley it was widely felt that this would signal the end of the working relationship between the DUP and Sinn Féin, but over time the frostiness between the two leaders thawed and a positive working relationship emerged. Paisley, Robinson and McGuiness had many differences, but what they had in common was a deep affection to their country and an unwavering loyalty to their respective communities. This greater goal helped overcome sectarian and factional differences.
The arrangement with Arlene Foster may not be seen in such a positive light but the recent intervention by Ian Paisley Jnr thanking McGuiness for his contribution to peace could yet be evidence of a seismic change in DUP thinking.
While McGuiness is retiring from frontline politics this doesn’t mean that he’ll be leaving politics altogether. But what will his role be? Will he become a Nelson Mandela figure keeping the spirit of the struggle alive and become a global ambassador for a united Ireland or will he take a more active role, advising and mentoring the emerging leadership and galvanising Republican grassroots in the face of Brexit and its emboldened British nationalism?
Stephen Colbert is a lecturer in Social Sciences based in Motherwell, a runner, musician, political animal and father of one