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


MunichAs nine more lives are added to an obscenely high European body-count courtesy of another angry young man dangerously detached from the empathetic interaction that enables civilised societies to function, it’s worth remembering Europe has been here before. That yesterday’s atrocity in Munich should have been carried out on the fifth anniversary of Andres Breivik’s chilling slaughter of 77 innocent people in Norway may imply this is all a recent development stretching back not much more than a decade. Granted, it’s certainly a barbaric new phase in the story; yet, while motivation, mission and cause may differ, even the location of the latest in 2016’s roll-call of indiscriminate assassinations already has, of course, a prominent blood-stained blot on its post-war history.

Forty-odd years on, it’s easy to forget those small groups of anarchists that sprang from the turbulent political maelstrom of 1968, those graduates and beneficiaries of expanding educational opportunities in an increasingly affluent Europe; whilst some simply settled for university sit-ins, placard-waving demos or forming idiosyncratic prog-rock bands, others crossed a line that carried them beyond the paramilitary pale. Prominent members of The Baader-Meinhof Gang (or Red Army Faction), ETA and the Red Brigades were the children of German Nazis and Spanish and Italian Fascists, taking the traditional rebellion against their parents to a gruesome new level. Confronted by ruling elites still containing veterans of the discredited regimes that had plunged the world into global conflict thirty years before, they viewed the post-war Western European democracies as a sham and embarked upon campaigns of terror that spanned the 70s.

But all were usurped by an outside organisation, Black September, a Palestinian group whose most infamous moment came with the massacre that marred the Munich Olympics of 1972.

Although it was effectively an isolated incident on European soil that had no parallel for decades, what the Black September group managed in 1972, taking eleven Israeli athletes hostage and eventually murdering them in the middle of the Olympic Games, an event that was supposed to show the world how far Germany had come since 1945, was something new. The world was watching and Black September were acutely aware of that. Although they were secular nationalists and religion had no real part to play in the atrocity they executed, they exploited media attention to their advantage in ways that subsequent terrorist groups where religion is employed as a cause have learned from.

Black September were far more organised and far more ambitious than their European contemporaries, becoming expert in the hijacking of aircraft in particular; indeed, they continued to perpetrate such attacks long after the likes of the Baader-Meinhof Gang had been imprisoned and/or killed. Whilst all this was going on in mainland Europe, Britain had its own terrorist problem in the shape of the IRA; whilst sharing little in terms of motivation with their continental comrades-in-illegal arms, the impact of the IRA on 70s Britain ran parallel with events in West Germany, Italy and Spain, giving the impression that Europe as a whole was at war with itself. The authorities responded to the new professionalism of terrorism by forming anti-terrorist agencies that specified in the unprecedented challenges facing the continent; one positive outcome was that countries confronted by these challenges co-operated to keep the anarchy under control, arguably cementing European unity with greater effectiveness than the Common Market and EU ever have.

While the more concise and focused demands of ETA and the IRA had an eternal attraction to some that made it possible for their ranks to constantly regenerate when death and imprisonment robbed them of long-term leaders, their 70s contemporaries seemed to belong to a particular post-war moment that burned itself out. However, having a mere two dominant terrorist organisations to lock horns with and then eventually neutralising their threat may have made the agencies formed to combat them quite complacent in other areas.

Just as the end of the Cold War provoked a false sense of international security, the respective ceasefires of ETA and IRA activities appeared to close a chapter on a particular kind of organised terrorism that modelled itself on an actual army, prompting a slight smugness and guard-lowering on the part of the authorities; it also possibly blinded them to the growth of ‘virtual’ armies that were far more inclusive and far more attractive to the disturbed individual in the bedroom.

There’s a sad irony that events in France and Germany should bookend a week in which the future of nuclear deterrents and Trident in particular has been vigorously debated. The astronomical cost of such weapons and the belief of governments in their vital importance both feel like a hangover from a completely different century now, a century of nation states whose enemies were other nation states. The threats posed by the national arsenals gathering dust almost seem an abstract irrelevance in a fluid, less rigid era of mass migration, rootless international identity and the unforeseen resurgence of faith over nation as a means of self-identification. All your aspiring Hitler, Stalin or Mussolini now needs is a computer and a gun. This is twenty-first century ‘Punk Rock’ war; anyone can do it – on public transport, on the street, in the mall.

© The Editor


74Barely have the South Yorkshire Police finished their failed attempt to wriggle out of responsibility for one disaster than a fellow Force with a past record of equal ineptitude are faced with answering questions surrounding another. In 1974, the West Midlands Police received two warnings that the IRA mainland bombing campaign – one that had claimed 5 lives in Guildford on October 5 – was poised to strike in Birmingham; they didn’t heed the warnings and two horrific explosions at two separate city centre locations killed 21 on November 21. Their response, admittedly under tremendous pressure from both government and public, was to round-up six available Irishmen and ensure they were sent down for the massacre, a notorious wrongful conviction that led to half-a-dozen men serving 16 years behind bars for a crime they didn’t commit whilst the guilty parties remained unpunished.

In the aftermath of the Birmingham Six’s release in 1991, a fresh investigation was opened into the pub bombings, led not by an independent body, but by the Chief Constable of the West Midlands at the time, Ron Hadfield – aided and abetted by the ever-dependable DPP. Perhaps unsurprisingly, officers investigating a Force headed by a man in charge of the investigation came to the conclusion that there was no case to be heard after all. However, the news that a fresh inquest into the deaths of the 21 in the Birmingham pub bombings of 1974 has been given the green light by coroner Louise Hunt has raised the kind of concerns that will be all-too familiar to any copper on duty at Hillsborough in 1989. Even before any such inquest has begun, the coroner’s decision has been disputed by the West Midlands Police, claiming her to be without jurisdiction to oversee an inquest. One would almost think they had something to hide.

The original 1974 inquest was abandoned before reaching its conclusions after the wrongful arrests of Hugh Callaghan, Patrick Joseph Hill, Gerard Hunter, Richard McIlkenny, William Power and John Walker, something that handily prevented any unwanted information leaking into the public domain. Repeated doubts over the convictions of the Six were aired by investigative journalists for years, but politicians prevented any possibility of a fair hearing until the Court of Appeal finally quashed those convictions in 1991. Although three officers involved in the case were later charged with perjury and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, none were prosecuted.

The public outrage over the bombings in Guildford and Birmingham led to emergency legislation being rushed through Parliament, resulting in the Prevention of Terrorism Act, something that gave police the right to hold those suspected of terrorist activities for seven days – effective Internment, as utilised so disastrously in Ulster since 1971. This created the ideal climate for West Midlands Police to beat confessions out of arrested suspects, something that enabled the actual perpetrators of the bombings to get away with them as well as preventing the families of those who died from receiving a full inquest into their deaths.

The prospect of another drawn-out hearing into an event that took place decades ago may not be to everyone’s taste; but there’s no denying that the families of the 21 have earned the right to hear what really happened. Alas, the passage of time and subsequent deaths of many who could have provided them with answers may well leave them no more knowledgeable than they are right now; but the possibility of potentially-damaging information as to the nature of collusion between the British Government, Special Branch, MI5 and the IRA itself being uncovered, not to mention exposing the dubious tactics of the West Midlands Police, is enough to vindicate the course of action announced by Louise Hunt.

Birmingham Six member Patrick Hill has publicly given his support to Justice for the 21, the campaign group formed five years ago to demand a fresh inquest; he claims the identities of those who carried out the Birmingham pub bombings have long been known to highly-placed British politicians as well as senior members of the IRA. The latter have always publicly denied responsibility for the atrocity, though Hill states they have privately admitted it and that the bombers have evaded prosecution as part of the Good Friday Agreement. Two of the alleged five are now dead, whereas two more have been promised immunity. Justice for the 21 even claims one of them was a British double-agent. Whether any of these claims will be confirmed in the legal proceedings to come remains to be seen.

What is evident, however, is that we are in for one more exposé of the endemic corruption running through the British Police Force at all levels; and how long before the whole rotten edifice is dismantled from the top on down? We can but hope.

© The Editor


1916After more than fifty years of technological advancements and increasing industrialisation, Britain experienced a series of defiantly backward-looking backlashes at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, though these new Luddites were a good deal more creative than their machine-smashing, albeit pioneering, technophobe ancestors. Most devoted their energies to recreating an ideal of Britain that had supposedly been lost in the white heat of industrial revolution. The Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts & Crafts movement had already delved into medieval mysticism, but they were followed by the likes of musicologist Cecil Sharp roaming the countryside collecting folk songs and the formation of various pseudo-Masonic societies harking back to an imagined idyll of Albion in which druids held the key to the ancient spiritual soul of the nation.

Parallel events across the Irish Sea celebrated a romantic notion of a pure Gaelic Ireland unsullied by its absorption into the British Empire, though the perpetrators of this thinking were viewed by many as a fringe element on the periphery of the long-running saga of Home Rule. However, with a Liberal Government at Westminster, the concept of an Ireland running itself within the secure Imperial embrace was revived, something that struck fear in the heart of Ulstermen who valued their place at the table of the planet’s greatest superpower. At Belfast City Hall in 1912, the opening salvo of something that would eventually climax with the partition of the nation was fired by leading Northern Irish politician and barrister Sir Edward Carson signing the Ulster Covenant. This call-to-arms document sent a message to Downing Street that handing control of the country to the Catholic stronghold of Dublin would threaten not only Protestant dominance in the North, but Ireland’s membership of the United Kingdom.

With clandestine Conservative support on the mainland, the signing of the Covenant by 237,368 Ulstermen was followed by the establishment of a Unionist militia, the Ulster Volunteer Force, who armed themselves courtesy of 25,000 smuggled rifles. Catholic Nationalists who feared Home Rule would be defeated by paramilitary means responded in kind as the various disparate Rebel factions such as the Irish Republican Brotherhood came together as the Irish Volunteers, an organisation that morphed into the Irish Republican Army. Although the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 focused attention elsewhere, those who didn’t sign-up to the British war effort remained determined to declare an Irish Republic rather than merely oppose the aims of the UVF; and in April 1916, this small group severed their links with Home Rule moderates and went for it.

Led by Patrick Pearse, a scholastic Anglo-Irish member of the IRB Military Council, a coordinated attack on various strategic positions in Dublin by over a thousand volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army began on Easter Monday 1916 while most of Britain was distracted by events on the Western Front. As news of the insurrection spread, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland declared martial law and regiments of the British Army that weren’t already engaged on the continent were deployed to end the rebellion, many of them being Irish regiments, including the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. One-by-one, the locations seized by the Rebels were recaptured over several days and the last stand took place at the General Post Office on Sackville Street. A fierce siege developed that saw the prominent Dublin civic landmark bombarded by shells as Irishman killed Irishman.

Most of the lives lost during the Easter Rising were civilian, and when the Rebels finally surrendered on Saturday 29 April the prisoners led from the GPO were jeered by bystanders, particularly the wives of men who were away fighting the Great War. Outside of the more fanatical elements of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Rebels were not regarded as heroes by the vast majority of the Catholic community, and the ruin of Sackville Street was something for which they, and not the British Army, were held responsible. Had the Rebels simply been handed long prison sentences by the authorities, chances are Irish history could have taken a radically different turn. Would Church and State have been so fatally incestuous in the South? Would the Troubles have even broken out in the North, let alone spanned thirty bloody years? But, at a moment when Britain was involved in a serious military conflict, clemency was in short supply and the guilty men were all sentenced to death.

Considering the bigger picture, the decision to execute the ringleaders of the Easter Rising was an unsurprising response to an act of treason at a time of war; but what happened next was predicted by the poet WB Yeats when he wrote ‘a terrible beauty is born’. Public opinion was not on the side of the Rebels as they surrendered, but when fourteen men faced a firing squad in the grounds of Kilmainham Gaol, opinion turned in their favour and all Irish Nationalists suddenly saw them as that most potent symbol of Nationalism, the martyr, something they have remained in romantic Republican mythology ever since.

Oral history is always tailored to suit the agenda of the storyteller, and the Easter Rising of 1916 is no different. The compromise of the Irish Free State, the assassination of Michael Collins, the War of Independence and Partition are all viewed as direct consequences of the crushing of the Easter Rising. In retrospect, the executions of the ringleaders and subsequent round-up and imprisonment of other suspects can be regarded as a cataclysmic blunder by the British, even if it all happened a hundred years ago now. Lest we forget, the fact that events that took place as far back as 1690 are still celebrated by Protestant Northern Ireland serves as a reminder of how the Irish have extremely long memories indeed. The passing of a mere century between 1916 and 2016 is therefore no time at all, as resurgent dissidents eager to mark the occasion with renewed bloodshed will testify. The Celtic Tiger has not lost all its teeth yet.

© The Editor