Terror and peace: Martin McGuinness’s divisive legacy

Published by CapX (21st March, 2017)

For anyone my age, the death of Martin McGuinness brings very mixed feelings. We grew up to a backdrop of bombs and bullets in British cities, directed by this man, his allies and their vicious paramilitary forces. It is easy to forget that the Irish Republican Army brought far worse terror to our streets than today’s Islamist fanatics, with cowardly attacks on pubs and politicians as well as the soldiers they claimed to be fighting. Yet this same person stepped back from violence and helped bring about a remarkable peace settlement.

He was a militant republican living in a democracy who needlessly orchestrated the slaughter of scores of innocent citizens. He was not just linked to the killing of those serving in uniform, but children and even horses. Yes, he finally saw the futility of mass murder, but that should not absolve him from these sins.

Yet nor can we ignore that this clever, complex character did eventually turn to the ballot box instead of bombs. I spent a day with him six years ago in the republican heartland of Cork when he was standing for president of Ireland, driving Sinn Fein forward by exploiting public discontent over grotesque political and financial failures. His campaign was going well, and there were suspicions he might actually win – although smarter analysts thought he was drawing the poison over past misdeeds in preparation for a Sinn Fein success in 2018.

There was a torrent of abuse against him. McGuinness was savaged by the media, as if journalists had been bottling up past frustrations, and he was confronted on the campaign trail by families of IRA victims. The Irish president is, after all, commander-in-chief of the country’s armed forces.

But it was fascinating to see how the curly-haired former terror chieftain was welcomed in Cork during an evening rally before 500 fans. He was compared to genuinely great figures such as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. When he finally entered the room there was such excitement an elderly lady near me almost fell over trying to grasp his hand.

His speech – a sickly-sweet, sanitised telling of his life story – was rapturously received. He told of his father being beaten by police and the friend who introduced him to his wife shot dead by ‘the British’ – then added: ‘And they wondered why I joined the IRA’ to loud cheers. McGuinness sold himself as a civil rights hero standing up to cruel British invaders, then told affectionate anecdotes about his pal Mandela. The intended comparison was obvious. Such was the support in the room he even won laughs with a jibe against his presidential rival, the singer Dana, for not joining the IRA when she hailed from his hometown of Derry.

Afterwards, despite looking tired and admitting he was no fan of the paper for which I was covering his campaign, he patiently answered all my questions. He professed surprise at the tone of some, presenting himself as the populist anti-establishment candidate against an elite that had failed his nation, then like any mainstream politician repeated the boring mantra that the ‘only poll that matters’ was the election. Yet I was impressed he gave me time since many would have ducked out, knowing my article was unlike to be sympathetic.

Two answers in particular struck me. The first was when I asked him why so many people seemed to hate him. ‘I don’t hate anybody,’ he shot back instantly. Then I asked this man who had overseen some of the bloodiest outrages on British soil during my lifetime about how our nation should react to his latter metamorphosis. ‘I’ll tell you something about the British,’ he replied. ‘I have been travelling regularly there since the ceasefire 17 years ago – such a long time, isn’t it – and I have never had anyone say an angry word to me. British people are very fair people. I appreciate that. People respect what has happened as representing real progress.’

Partly thanks to him, Ireland has made massive progress from days when I used to travel there regularly for The Sunday Times during those torturous negotiations towards peace. McGuinness took the huge step from gangster godfather to peacemaker. As Theresa May said in her well-judged comments, while not condoning his past he ‘played a defining role in leading the Republican movement away from violence. In doing so, he made an essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace.’

But, as the prime minister knows all too well, the stability of Northern Ireland is one of the key issues she must juggle as she negotiates the nightmarish maze of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. Indeed, there must be regret that McGuinness, the political brain behind the Republican transition, has left the stage at this delicate time as devolution falters and his less-sophisticated colleague Gerry Adams presses for a referendum on Irish unity.

I watched with amazement as McGuinness forged such an unexpected bond with the firebrand loyalist Ian Paisley. They went from bitter enemies to the world’s least likely double act, nicknamed the Chuckle Brothers such was their rapport. Pictures of this pair roaring with laughter made one of the most remarkable front pages I put together during my years as deputy editor of a national newspaper, symbolising more than any words could ever achieve the welcome changes in their land.

We can never forget his bloodstained past. But when remembering the life of this man, we should recall the words of Paisley’s son when McGuinness announced his retirement due to ill health three months ago: ‘The most important thing in any person’s life is not where their journey starts or even what happens along the road, but where it ends.’

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