The death of Martin McGuinness provoked strong reactions from both those who held him in high esteem and from those who were unable to forgive him for his leading role in the Provisional IRA. The breadth of reactions demonstrates the depth of the fault lines that run through Northern politics, as well as the proximity of a painful history that still touches on everyday life in the North and, indeed, the rest of Ireland and the UK. However, to simply label McGuinness a hero or villain is to ignore the nuances of the history of the North as well as his own personal history.
The creation of an IRA leader
“I have often wondered how different my own politics would have been if I had come of age in Derry in the 1960s”
Martin McGuinness was born in 1950 in the Bogside area of Derry, a city with a majority Catholic population that was gerrymandered so as to return a Unionist dominated council. Housing and jobs were frequently denied to Catholics and McGuinness himself was refused a job as a car mechanic upon leaving school due to his religion. Images of Civil Rights marchers being beaten by police at peaceful parades in the late 1960s shocked many into activism. McGuinness was a teenager at the time and joined the IRA in the early 1970s, a period which saw the arrival of the British army onto the streets of the North and the mass internment of many Catholics without trial. While many of us find it easy to condemn those who joined the IRA, I know I have often wondered how different my own politics would have been if I had come of age in Derry in the 1960s, observing the violent end of that decade in a city which had always felt the cold edge of the Unionist-dominated State’s prejudice towards its own citizens.
From Soldier to Government Minister
“His influence in moving the organisation and Sinn Féin towards a strategy of electoral politics rather than violence was critical and this must be acknowledged”
For much of his adult life Martin McGuinness was part of a brutal movement that destroyed many lives on these islands. As an IRA leader it is alleged that he ordered the deaths of many people over the three decades of the Troubles which gives insight into his ruthlessness. When his death was announced on Tuesday March 21, it was difficult not to think of the victims and their families, people scarred by IRA violence who may have been holding out hope that McGuinness could someday provide them with answers about the death of their loved ones. However likely or unlikely this hope may have been, McGuinness’s death marks another stage in their own journeys of grief and their stories are a reminder of the painful legacy issues that continue to haunt the North.
However, McGuinness’s leadership role in the IRA meant that his influence in moving the organisation and Sinn Féin towards a strategy based on electoral politics rather than violence was critical and this must be acknowledged. Only he could convince the foot soldiers of the merits of the peace process, assuring them that it was not a sell out of all that they had fought for, despite the Good Friday Agreement recognising the constitutional legitimacy of the Northern state. His personal commitment to the peace process was demonstrated in his consistent condemnation of dissident Republican violence, a move which required courage given that he was on the same side as those committing the violence not that long before and was viewed as a traitor by those same people. The meetings with Queen Elizabeth II were symbolic gestures which illustrated his sincerity and willingness to make the peace process work as well as his capacity for personal compromise in order to make this happen. This provides a useful lesson for the North’s politicians as the province yet again faces political crisis and impasse.
Legacy Issues: Compromise and Controversy
“History will find it difficult to achieve a widely accepted verdict on the story of Martin McGuinness”
The funeral of Martin McGuinness on the following Thursday saw his coffin carried from his Bogside home in Derry. The procession passed murals depicting different episodes from the Troubles, one of which shows Bishop Edward Daly, who passed away last year, waving a bloody handkerchief as he attempted to escort a dying Jackie Duddy, injured in the Bloody Sunday shootings, to safety. Bishop Daly was a great servant to the people of Derry and a man who would declare that there was no glory in war as he committed his efforts to peace in the North. The contrast provided by these two men and their choices during the Troubles was pertinent as the funeral cortege made its way to the Church and perhaps a cause for reflection. While McGuinness’s later contribution to the peace process was critical and worthy of praise, the illustration of violence and pain provided in the backdrop of the Bogside murals also shows how lamentable the decision made by many at that time to pursue violent methods truly was. However, to dismiss them all, including Martin McGuinness, as villains and monsters is to ignore the fact that they were products of their environment and time, for which the British State must take some responsibility, as its brutal tactics in the North served to radicalise many young men and women who were already vulnerable to the propaganda and rhetoric of the IRA.
History will find it difficult to achieve a widely accepted verdict on the story of Martin McGuinness and the range of testimonies to him in this past week have illustrated the challenges in formulating one. A letter written by David Trimble to McGuinness in the week before he died, in which Trimble praised his efforts in the Good Friday Agreement negotiations and his approach to Government in the following decade as essential, demonstrates McGuinness’s achievements, and indeed that of the wider peace process, in bringing together sworn foes in working relationships and personal friendships. However, this can be contrasted with the words of Norman Tebbit, who stated that the world will be a sweeter place with McGuinness’s passing. Tebbit’s wife was left disabled in the Brighton bomb attack and his anger serves to remind us of the presence of those still hurting as a result of the choices made by McGuinness and others and the difficult nature of forgiveness.
Perhaps the ultimate lesson of McGuinness’s legacy will be that of the futility of violence. As he himself had once declared that “it will be the cutting edge of the IRA that will bring freedom”, before coming to accept in later life that a united Ireland will only be achieved through the democratic will of the people of Ireland, perhaps he himself knew this better than others.