It’s an old saying, but it seems especially applicable today – one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Martin McGuinness, who has died at the age of 66, will be remembered as both warmonger and peacemaker, a visionary who paved the way for the Good Friday Agreement and a murderer who prolonged the bloodshed until he belatedly realised there was nowhere left to run. In a divided community, few figures continue to generate more division than the mass of contradictions that was Martin McGuinness, and it’s doubtful that death will alter any fixed opinions of someone whose remarkable journey took him from the Bogside to Stormont, from IRA Commander to Deputy First Minister.
Even when he was regarded as a dangerously intransigent paramilitary by the security services, he and Gerry Adams were flown to London for top-secret discussions with the British Government at a house in Chelsea’s exclusive Cheyne Walk. The talks, chaired by then-Northern Ireland Secretary Willie Whitelaw, were undertaken during a brief IRA ceasefire in the summer of 1972; they collapsed in failure, but McGuinness had already been earmarked by MI5 as a man the Government could work with. Many might say it was a pity it took another twenty-five years, and the loss of hundreds more lives, before that came to pass.
That McGuinness could rise through IRA ranks with such speed and reach such a prominent position when still in his early twenties is testament to the dangerous life he’d chosen for himself; one-by-one, his superiors were killed in the line of duty as the violence intensified following the formation of the Provisional IRA in 1969. A Nationalist community under siege from Loyalist mobs strongly opposed to Catholic calls for civil rights had welcomed the British Army as peacekeepers in the absence of their traditional protectors; the effectively defunct IRA had been mocked as I Ran Away. The new Provisional wing embarked on a bombing campaign in Belfast and Londonderry, targeting city centre businesses to draw troops and the RUC away from the neighbourhoods where the organisation had to rebuild trust and support. It worked, aided by the increasingly clumsy joint policies instigated by both Stormont and Westminster.
A string of disasters during the early years of the Troubles, from Internment to Bloody Sunday, served as effective recruitment drives for the IRA, and while the abolition of the Unionist stronghold at Stormont may have provoked cheers on one side of the sectarian divide, the imposition of Direct Rule and the continuing presence of the British Army on the streets of Ulster galvanised the Republican call to arms that eventually crossed over to the mainland and brought the war to London and Birmingham. A year after the British Government had hoped McGuinness was someone they could work with, he was behind bars on terrorism charges in Eire; after his release, he took his first tentative steps into the political arena by becoming involved with Sinn Fein, a position that gave him indirect contact with British intelligence during the 1981 Maze Hunger Strikes. He remained someone with the potential to bring about change without the bomb, but there was still a long way to go.
The IRA ceasefire of 1994 marked a turning point both in the life of Martin McGuinness and the politics of Northern Ireland; there suddenly seemed a viable way forward that didn’t involve Armalite. In 1997 he was elected MP for Mid-Ulster and was Sinn Fein’s chief negotiator during the peace talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement. When the power-sharing executive was established at Stormont, he became Minister for Education, but it was his ten-year tenure as Deputy First Minister, establishing an unlikely and unexpectedly convivial working relationship with his one-time nemesis Ian Paisley as First Minister, that suggested McGuinness’ progression mirrored the progression of the province as a whole.
Another indication of the will to move on came with his regular condemnation of Republican dissident splinter groups and their recurrent attempts to revive the tactics of old. McGuinness’ landmark 2012 meeting with HM the Queen was potent with symbolism for both parties, though the fact it happened at all speaks volumes as to how far both McGuinness and Northern Ireland itself had travelled in two decades.
The understandable cries of betrayal on both sides when the Northern Ireland Assembly was formed in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement nevertheless failed to sway the determination of former enemies to work together for the common good; and men laying down their arms in favour of portfolios wasn’t necessarily unprecedented. The immediate post-war governments of France contained many who could once have been labelled terrorists, as did the first government of Israel; and there’s always post-Apartheid South Africa. Martin McGuinness was pivotal to the peace process, whatever his past activities had done to prevent peace, and this has been recognised in the statements issued by British politicians today, particularly those who played their own part in it.
Many feel (as with Gerry Adams’ similar comments) that the repeated denials by McGuinness as to the degree of his involvement with the IRA long after he claimed to have left it amounted to evasive revisionism designed to enhance his newfound status as a respectable politician. Many can never find it in them to forgive his role in a campaign of carnage that killed and maimed hundreds over a quarter of a century. One could argue most significant political leaders have blood on their hands, though it tends to come with the elevation to political power; McGuinness did it in reverse.
In death, as in life, he will always be a controversial character, albeit one that undoubtedly made an indelible mark on his times, for good or ill. Where Martin McGuinness is concerned, it seems the jury is permanently out.
© The Editor