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Martin McGuinness: the IRA commander who walked down a political path

McGuinness has died, aged 66. PA

During the Troubles in Northern Ireland, some Ulster unionists blamed the Catholic education system for promoting an Irish nationalist identity among the minority population. This, they argued, helped fuel a republican insurgency from the early 1970s. As a leading figure in the insurgency, Martin McGuinness was unequivocal when asked about his own experience of being taught in the Catholic system: “They didn’t make me a republican; the Brits made me a republican.”

It was not Irish history that politicised McGuinness and led him to join the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Rather events in Northern Ireland from the late 1960s drove him – specifically the state’s violent response to a civil rights movement calling for an end to Catholic discrimination, and in particular seeing the killing of a neighbour by the British army in July 1971.

Henceforth, McGuinness became a committed IRA member. He gained a particular reputation as a deadly sniper. Young Catholic women in his home town of Derry would even goad the British soldiers who supervised their every movement on the streets: “McGuinness will be out tonight. McGuinness will be out tonight …” McGuinness was also feared within republicanism as a strict disciplinarian, foreswearing alcohol and other vices, and appearing cold and unemotional towards the movement’s brutal response to “touts” – those suspected of collaborating with the security forces.

However, McGuinness’ abilities early marked him out as more than just a military man. Aged just 22, he was airlifted to London as part of an IRA delegation to engage in talks with the British government. Though these talks failed, when the British reopened a channel of communication with republicans in the late 1980s, McGuinness was now lead negotiator for Sinn Féin, the political wing of the IRA.

It was a role he maintained through the crucial talks leading to the IRA ceasefire of 1994, and then the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s chief of staff, vividly recalls the time during these negotiations when the Sinn Féin leader first visited Downing Street. Entering the Cabinet Room, McGuinness paused to comment: “So this is where all the damage was done.” Powell was taken aback by such a frank apparent reference to the IRA’s audacious near assassination of John Major via a mortar attack on Number 10 in 1991. “Yes”, Powell responded: “The windows came in but no one was injured.” “No”, replied McGuinness, “I meant this is where Michael Collins signed the treaty in 1921.”

Powell’s anecdote illustrates the very different positions from which the British government and Sinn Féin approached the Northern Ireland problem. For the former the focus was republican violence, and how to end it. For the latter the focus was on the historical injustices that motivated republican violence, and how to redress them. McGuinness had of course been referring to the treaty which partitioned Ireland and so created Northern Ireland.

A key partnership

When Sinn Féin and Ian Paisley’s DUP became the largest parties in their respective communities in the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the terms of that deal meant that they had to agree on how to share power in Northern Ireland. Thus, a former IRA commander and a former firebrand preacher now jointly led the Northern Ireland government. The media had a field day, dubbing the pairing the Chuckle Brothers, as a distinct camaraderie was displayed by Paisley and McGuinness.

The Chuckle Brothers: Paisley and McGuinness share a joke. PA

Arguably, this showed the leadership skills of the two men. A deal between two sulking adversaries would have been harder to sell to their respective constituencies, and it was far better to have the media mock them than to pull at the loose threads of the political accord they had made. Meanwhile, the personal accord between Paisley and McGuinness seemed to grow into something genuine. Their past actions had, understandably, seen them portrayed as wholly serious individuals, but this masked the streak of humour which McGuinness and the man he called “Big Ian” clearly shared. Their bond was most evident when Paisley retired. To mark the occasion, McGuinness presented him with a self-penned poem inspired by the author’s passion for fly-fishing. To describe McGuinness as a multi-layered man would seem a gross understatement.

Taking a risk

McGuinness’ handshake with the Queen in 2012 was seen as another crucial milestone in the peace process – the Queen’s cousin, Lord Mountbatten, was killed by the IRA in 1979. Again, leadership was evident on both sides.

But perhaps more powerful than McGuinness’ meeting with the Queen was the moment in 2009 when he branded republican dissidents as “traitors to Ireland” after they killed a police officer. Shaking hands with the Queen was a potent symbol of peace-making; McGuinness’s condemnation of dissident violence had much greater practical effect. His unambiguous, impassioned statement helped protect the lives of all police officers, but particularly Catholics, whom dissidents cynically targeted as a way of undermining the transformation of policing achieved as part of the Good Friday Agreement. If dissidents could discourage young Catholics from joining the reformed service, they could hope for a return to the status quo ante – a partisan, Protestant police force, from which many Catholics had turned to the IRA for protection.

McGuinness spoke for the overwhelming majority of nationalists by making clear that the police were now a service for all the people of Northern Ireland. Dissident attacks on the police were thus an attack on the people they served. Everyone must therefore stand in defence of the police. It was arguably his greatest contribution to the peace process. He faced numerous death threats afterwards, so it may also have been his bravest.

The settlement

It is because of such developments that the British media recently tried to draw a line between McGuinness and the other leading republican of the modern era, Gerry Adams. Republicans, of course, are well-used to British tactics of divide and rule, and for Adams and McGuinness, the secret of their political success was actually their unity of purpose. That, in turn, maximised the unity of the republican movement through its various compromises over recent decades. Together they achieved what no single leader in the long history of Irish republicanism ever did – embracing politics without a major split in the movement. Dissident factions splintering away are manageable, but history shows that a more significant divide will mean a continuation of conflict.

Adams and McGuinness attend the funeral of IRA commander Patrick Kelly in 1987. PA

The media might also recall that it previously depicted McGuinness as the real hardliner. He was “the soldier” keeping faith with the republican rank and file, and keeping a lid on the ambitions of Adams, “the politician”. Certainly, the two men brought different qualities to the table at different times, but together they combined to provide an exceptional mode of leadership which jointly steered an essentially unified republican movement away from armed struggle towards peaceful politics.

Others, however, choose to focus only on the earlier part of McGuinness’s career. Like his other political partner, Ian Paisley, who many nationalists feel instigated the Troubles by orchestrating opposition to the civil rights movement, McGuinness will never be forgiven by some people.

For victims of violence on either side of the conflict, the focus on the past is wholly understandable. There were, after all, voices on both sides of the divide who, from the very outset, consistently argued for a more peaceful way towards change in Northern Ireland. However, ultimately, figures such as Paisley and McGuinness both helped lead more intransigent minds down that political path.

As long as future generations are prepared to continue with the same endeavour, the most enduring legacy of the former firebrand preacher and the former IRA commander will be a peaceful, just, and democratic settlement in Ireland.

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