Martin McGuinness (1950-2017)

Kathryn Johnston co-authored the biography Martin McGuinness: From Guns to Government with her husband Liam Clarke.

When Seamus Heaney wrote his 1975 poem, ‘Whatever You Say, Say Nothing’, he might have been thinking of Martin McGuinness.

In November 2003 McGuinness swore on oath before Mark Saville at the Bloody Sunday Inquiry that he had already left the IRA in 1974.

At the end of 1973, Martin McGuinness had told the Special Criminal Court in Dublin ‘I am a member of the Derry Brigade of the IRA and I am very, very proud of it.’ McGuinness was acquitted on 4 charges relating to explosives and ammunition, but convicted of being a member of the IRA and given a 6-month sentence.

By 1974 McGuinness had been appointed to Director of Operations on GHQ staff and at the end of February he was jailed in Portlaoise after being convicted of IRA membership. He was released in November 1974. It was the last time that the State, whether Irish or British, would manage to lay a glove on McGuinness.

His admission that he had been in the IRA was an inspired legal strategy and a no brainer. McGuinness thus confined his answers to the very brief period around Bloody Sunday. While publicly acknowledging his central role as IRA leader, he had simultaneously inoculated himself, he hoped, against other accusations.

‘The code of honour of which I speak applies to me …’ he told Lord Saville. I do believe that it is a common thread running through membership of the IRA; that there is a code of honour that you do not disclose information about other IRA volunteers or about people who help the struggle for freedom in Ireland.’

Cross examined the next day, it was suggested to him that ‘those who continue to live in those areas might be frightened to give evidence that contradicts yours?’

The answer was succinct.

‘I have advocated to everyone that anyone who has any information whatsoever to assist this Tribunal and to assist the families should come forward and give their evidence and if they wish to come forward and contradict me, that is a matter for themselves. I am a big boy, I am well capable of fighting my own corner.’

At the same time as McGuinness was swearing to this under oath, 2 senior and veteran IRA men were visiting those encouraged by his words, warning them off.

As the old Irish proverb, has it, live horse and you’ll get grass.

By the time of the funerals of the 13 unarmed civilians who were shot dead on Bloody Sunday by the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, McGuinness had taken over as OC of the Derry Command of the IRA.

But it wasn’t just the IRA who were aware of his talents. He was part of an IRA delegation to meet William Whitelaw later in 1972 in Cheyne Walk in London when he met the wily Secret Intelligence Service officer (MI6) Frank Steele, who marked him out as a man to watch. Steele was the first British official to deal with the IRA and the dialogue between McGuinness and MI6 was to last for more than 20 years with Steele’s successor, Michael Oatley. It only ended with Oatley’s retirement in 1991.

There is a mythology surrounding Martin McGuinness that started in those days, when without the knowledge of his IRA comrades he took a revolver with him on the helicopter which flew him to London.

Soon he had become notorious. His house in the Bogside and his safe house in the Illies in Donegal, where he had spent much of his younger life staying with his grandmother, became the venue for regular trips from international celebrities. He entertained Jill and Leon Uris, for example. And while Jill Uris photographed him for her book, A Terrible Beauty, Leon picked his brains about his experiences and would eventually base the central character of Conor Larkin in Trinity on what McGuinness told him.

One journalist described him as ‘fair-haired, handsome and with almost a schoolboy shyness about him.’ Headlines proclaimed ‘The boy who rules Free Derry’, Derry’s ‘blue eyed boy’. But it would be deeply, fundamentally wrong to dismiss him as some kind of Irish Danny the Red. McGuinness was a ruthless man of steel, with more than a whiff of grapeshot about him.

By 1978 he had taken over as Chief of Staff of the IRA from Gerry Adams, after he was arrested for questioning about the La Mon massacre. By that time, he was in the middle of a series of arms buying trips to America, where he stayed with the IRA’s main gun runner, George Harrison.

McGuinness was a cool tactician, a strategist who took as his mission the aim of developing a liberated zone along the border.

By August 1979, his plans had come to savage fruition.

Since 1969 Earl Mountbatten and his family had spent every August in Sligo. He had been warned that he was a prime target for the IRA, most recently by Sir Maurice Oldfield, who had just resigned from his post as ‘C2 – the Director General of MI6. Oldfield had been warned that the IRA were planning an attack.

To the IRA Mountbatten was a symbol of British imperialism. As a cousin to the Queen and uncle to Prince Charles, the Colonel in Chief of the Parachute Regiment, his death would give the IRA the propaganda victory that McGuinness dreamed of.

On the morning of 27 August 1979, 2 Irish plain clothes detectives were watching through binoculars as Mountbatten’s boat, the Shadow, silently sailed past them. Suddenly the silence was shattered when a massive explosion ripped the boat to pieces. The dead included Lord Mountbatten, his nephew Nicholas Knatchbull, Paul Maxwell, a 15-year-old schoolboy from Enniskillen in the North of Ireland who was helping as boatman, and the Dowager Lady Brabourne.

Naturally security forces were put on the highest possible alert after the attack. That afternoon a convoy of two army trucks of the Parachute Regiment drove to an army base at Newry. Their route took them past Narrow Water, on the shore of Carlingford Lough, marking the boundary between NI and the Republic.

As the rear vehicle passed by a trailer, an IRA team detonated an 800-lb. bomb. Simultaneously an IRA unit on the southern side of the border opened on the troops who returned fire. A civilian, Michael Hudson, was killed in the crossfire. Six soldiers were killed in this explosion.

Several more Land Rovers and two helicopters arrived to help in the rescue effort. As a Wessex helicopter took off to ferry injured soldiers to hospital, a second 800 lb. bomb was detonated, killing twelve more soldiers. It was the Paras biggest loss since Arnhem in World War II.

Shortly afterwards a Sinn Fein press officer took a call from a journalist to ask why the IRA had killed a harmless old man. The reply was as succinct as it was chilling. ‘Why are you ringing me from New Zealand?’

But even before that, the real significance of this major coup by the IRA had been scrawled all over gable walls in Belfast and the Bogside.

‘Thirteen dead and not forgotten, we got eighteen and Mountbatten.’

It was an echo of the graffiti that appeared after Bloody Sunday when British soldiers had boasted, ‘We got one, we got two, we got thirteen more than you.’

It was payback.

In his journal that night, Prince Charles, Colonel in Chief of the Parachute Regiment and nephew of Lord Mountbatten, wrote ‘Life will never be the same now that he is gone. I fear it will take me a very long time to forgive these people…’

Yet by 2015, Prince Charles and Lady Camilla Parker-Bowles had visited Mullaghmore to remember Lord Mountbatten. In the interest of our peace, Prince Charles said, we must no longer be prisoners of our history.

They were generous words.

It would be wrong to remember Martin McGuinness without acknowledging the steely resolve which made him the only man who could have brought the IRA from guns to government. And equally wrong to forget that he was the man that Frank Steele and Michael Oatley had recognized as a man the British state could do business with.

By 1994 the IRA had declared a ceasefire and McGuinness entered politics, first as Sinn Fein’s chief negotiator, and latterly and most notoriously as one half of the eponymous Stormont double act: the Chuckle Brothers. The rapport that he and Ian Paisley struck up as First and Deputy First Minister was legendary.

The two became emblems of the ‘success’ of the Irish peace process. McGuinness travelled the world, doling out advice on the lessons of peace and reconciliation. But it would be equally wrong to forget that McGuinness was an IRA leader for around 25 years. 25 years that were marked by the deaths of over 3,000 people. Not all, to be fair, attributable to the IRA.

In 1985 he told the BBC documentary, Real Lives: At the Edge of the Union “We don’t believe that winning elections and winning any amount of votes will win freedom in Ireland.”

“At the end of the day,” he said, “it will be the cutting edge of the IRA which will bring freedom.”

And in 2002 the BBC journalist Nick Robinson posed him a question that we would all have liked a truthful answer to.

‘So, finally, if you can agree a truth and reconciliation Process and that’s a big ‘if’, that there may come a day where Martin McGuinness can be ‘full and frank’, even about the things perhaps you’re ashamed of, things in the past that the IRA did?’

The answer: ‘Well, the, the IRA have done things in the past which were wrong and I have spoken up on countless occasions about that and so has Gerry Adams, but I haven’t done anything that I’m ashamed of.’

It was an answer that many of the IRA’s victims would disagree with. Like the family of Patsy Gillespie, the first IRA ‘human bomb’ who was killed along with 5 British soldiers at Coshquin when the IRA detonated the explosives he had been forced to carry at gunpoint to a border checkpoint.

As recently as last week, in a day at Stormont organized by Jim Allister, head of the TUV to mark the European Day of Remembrance of Victims of Terrorism, victims shared their experiences and criticized the lack of justice for victims of the conflict.

David Kelly, whose father Patrick was a private in the Irish army, was murdered in Ballinamore during a shootout in December 1983 by the IRA kidnap gang who had captured the British supermarket chief, Don Tidey. Recalling the occasion on which he confronted Martin McGuinness in Kelly’s home town of Athlone during McGuinness’ failed bid to become Irish President in 2011, Kelly recalled. ‘I said…You want to be president of Ireland – can you assist me in finding out who murdered my father?’

‘He told me it was time to move on. He said that to my face’.

Could anyone else have brought the IRA to a cessation of violence without an admission of defeat?

It is unlikely. His journey is the journey of the peace process, the journey of a man who died as dedicated an Irish republican as he had lived.

It was Martin McGuinness, not Gerry Adams, who became deputy first minister in the Stormont Executive. And it was McGuinness, not Adams, who shook hands with the Queen and wore a white tie to dine at Windsor Castle. Republican dissidents jeered at him for that, calling him ‘Banquet Man’.

Remember how Shakespeare brings Othello to a close? “I have done the State some service; and they know’t”. A few lines later, Othello talks of himself as someone who was “perplexed in the extreme” and who had “traduced the State” .

At the end of the day, history will record how Martin McGuinness is remembered. It is to be hoped that he has left some account of his actions, of his thinking, not just for the victims of the IRA, but for our children and our children’s children. They deserve no less.

But the fear will remain: that his secrets will go to the grave with him.


  • MainlandUlsterman

    Just to respond to your last point as there’s a lot there. I uderstand this is how the brain works when it comes to memory, it consortinas and it picks out highlights. But the point about what you call the statistical porridge is that it is System 2 thinking, more deliberate and rational, recovering the parts that System 1 (the part that take shortcuts) misses, using the Kahneman/Tversky dichotomy of how we think –,_Fast_and_Slow
    System 1 is great but we can’t completely rely on System 1 alone for accurate accounts of events. It navigates from shiny object to shiny object. You are right that story-telling likes this approach too. Trump loves it, as all propagandists too. There is infinite choice of which incidents to use as your landmarks, so infinite ability to make the story you want that way. What there isn’t is rigour.

    Does that matter? Well it sort of does, if getting to the truth is important. Stories are just that, stories. People who have to apply rigour in assembling a true account, for its own sake – a robust truth that can withstand questioning – need more than just the highlights. In the upper echelons of legal deliberating, for example, you’re not going to get away with it, as someone smart with a better version that better fits the facts will win the day. Likewise in academia. Likewise in my field of market research.

    That’s a long way of saying, you get closest to the truth by taking the statistical porridge into account as well as the high profile incidents. The statistical porridge is nothing other than an accumulation of lots of small facts together into a form we can understand. Together those facts are bigger and represent more of the lived experience of the Troubles than all the ‘landmark incidents’ that get more attention.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    “Well if it’s numbers game to you I can’t help you much. I don’t put a value on lives based on the numbers.”
    But if all lives are of equal value, then 2 people dying is twice as bad as one person dying. Am I losing you there?

  • Jollyraj

    That a hard no, Skibo?

  • NotNowJohnny

    What led you to conclude that MMG was my hero? Or did you make that up?

  • Enda

    187 civilians killed by the army. 187 too many.

    723 civilians killed by republicans. 723 too many

    878 civilians killed by loyalist paramilitaries. 878 too many.

    Just how many of that last figure though do you reckon were victims of state collusion?

    Maybe we’ll never know.

  • Jollyraj

    He does seem to be a hero to some of the lunatic fringe of Republicanism.

    Not to you? Apologies – I fear I may have been underestimating you.

  • AntrimGael

    Yes Jolly I would say that’s a fair analogy. They probably were targeted for going over to the ‘other side’ and leaving ‘our camp’. We are a very homogeneous society here, we are not comfortable with our own sort ‘selling us out’ and are very often harsher on them.
    I notice you say that you want BOTH Republican and Loyalist ‘terrorists’ arrested, tried and convicted. You didn’t mention British State Forces or government ministers who knew about collusion and shoot to kill. Should they also be subject to the law and due process?
    For what it’s worth I know on another thread I have mentioned victims and how we have failed them badly. We cannot keep stringing them along. I think we should be honest with victims and their families and tell them that there will no more investigations and prosecutions of pre-1998 incidents. There then should be compensation paid to ALL victims pre-1998. I don’t see any sense in prosecuting men in their 60’s and 70’s.

  • PeterBrown

    I didn’t put a value on lives based on the numbers – each life is equally valuable what I quantified was the number of lives taken which is a completely different thing from the value of each of those lives and to imply otherwise is frankly dishonest.

    Britain has the right to occupy because the majority of citizens in Northern Ireland want them to – that’s called the right to self determination and you’ll find it set out at some length in the Belfast Agreement where it was accepted by everyone including somewhat belatedly republicans! Impasse broken….but you still about to wanting Brits out not an Ireland of equals. You are now seriously out of step with official (or indeed provisional) policy.

    And not all killings of civilians were murders – even some by terrorists where they did not intend to take lives but recklessly acted without thinking through the consequences of those actions and lives were lost is manslaughter not murder. But you keep using emotive words which you clearly don’t even know the meaning of and soon your hole will be deep enough to bury yourself in it…

  • Jollyraj

    Well, compensation might be the way to go.

    It’s a can of worms, though. For civilian casualties it seems clear enough. The UK government would obviously compensate those killed in actions by the army, Sinn Fein would obviously compensate IRA victims and…presumably the victims of Loyalist terrorists would be compensated by the PUP?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Hard to say but my guess is dozens though not hundreds.

  • PeterBrown

    I presume that the column for members of the security forces killed by terrorists could be summarised as too few?

    And how many of the second figure were state collusion or with the tacit (no extradition) or active (arms supplies) of the government of the republic?

    Collusion (particularly when you strtecth it as far as it has been stretched recently) is also a 2 way street

  • PeterBrown

    Nationalists were well aware of the the atrocities committed in Ireland a half a century before

    As were unionists of the atrocities committed in the same conflict by republicans under the same name as the IRA of 1969 and then compounded by the treatment of their fellow religionists during the civil war and its aftermath.

    What is your point?

  • Jollyraj

    “Yes Jolly I would say that’s a fair analogy. They probably were targeted for going over to the ‘other side’ and leaving ‘our camp’. We are a very homogeneous society here, we are not comfortable with our own sort ‘selling us out’ and are very often harsher on them.”

    Do you agree with those people being murdered. Say, a contractor doing a bit of plastering on a policeman’s home? An enemy of Ireland? It still amazes me, even now, the breathtaking arrogance of Irish Republicans who felt entitled (and still claim to have been justified) to murder and mutilate ordinary, decent Irish men and women who didn’t necessarily share their aspirations for ‘collaboration’. Even the current crop of Shinners seem easy about it.

    ” You didn’t mention British State Forces or government ministers who knew about collusion and shoot to kill”

    Those who colluded with Loyalist terrorists to commit crimes should be tried too, yes. Though pretending collusion was much more widespread than it actually was is merely retrospective republican propaganda.

    As to ‘shoot to kill’…a catchy name, granted, but it seems to mean that the IRA felt that they should be allowed to shoot at and blow up British soldiers, but the soldiers shouldn’t be allowed to fire back. Granted, the IRA weren’t an army in any real sense – more like a hodge podge of criminals and psycopaths operating under a fleg of convenience, really – but I don’t see the logic in arming yourself, calling yourself an army, shooting at a real army…and then calling foul when that fire is returned.

  • NotNowJohnny

    It’s hardly a question of estimation. More like a case of being inexplicably and completely off the mark. Not unusual around here, mind. There’s a tendency for some people to make things up

  • AntrimGael

    Being honest when I was younger I would have been, at the very least, ambivalent towards those killings. The conflict had a tendency to do that, circling the wagons and refusing to condemn or go against your ‘own side’. Didn’t John Taylor, in Peter Taylor’s Loyalists documentary, state that there would have been a ‘grudging admiration’ within the wider Unionist community for the UDA and UVF? He was being honest.
    If, as you say, collusion was ‘over stated’ and just ‘Republican propaganda’ then the British State should have no problem opening their files and letting us all see…….but hey who is the main obstacle in the legacy issue and slapping 50/75 year closure certificates on British State files….Whitehall of course. What have they got to hide?
    As for your accusation that the IRA were merely criminals and psychopaths I would ask you to go and ask former RUC men, NIO officials, prison warders their opinion. When Loyalists were pumping iron and taking steroids in the Maze many Republicans were studying for academic qualifications. Many young people caught up in the conflict, on the Republican side anyway, were very intelligent individuals.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Arguably the civil rights demands were met by 1970.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Not a historian but I seem to remember quite a lot of celebration at the time of the terrorist prison suicides of 1981 . May have been a bonfire for Sands?

  • T.E.Lawrence Remember back in 1981 gathering around a drum fire at night time like this picture (then having to go into work at 7.00am red eyed and absolutely shattered) not too far away from Sandy Row to protect one of the last remaining unionist communities left in the centre of Belfast ! I think they are still there today so maybe it was worth it ?

  • T.E.Lawrence Also Remember standing behind this loyalist barricade in 1974 the most dangerous position in Belfast. Cromac Street across the road ! Ramshead Bar Righthand Corner ! Can also tell you how and where the materials came to build that barricade ? Amazing Storey !

  • Enda

    My point is British meddling in Ireland was bad for everyone.

  • Skibo

    No, no actual studies as nobody was interested in actually entering Nationalist areas and talking to Nationalists. Unionism was much more interested in tabulating the facts to give the results that they required to back up their story.
    Having come from that community, I believe I can talk about it. Having spoken to people who went looking for work and get through all the different phases of acceptance only to be turned down because you have too ling to travel or having too big a family.
    I know of people who went to the bru looking for work to be told there was noting local but there was work in England. These are not one off stories. They were repeated across the community. The odd Nationalist got a job, as a friend of mine said one time, to be the statistic!
    This is where I get annoyed when Unionism talks about rewriting history. See our history was not written down or accepted as having a position of equality. History is written by the victors and the rulers.

  • Skibo

    The EU funding was denied to NI as Margaret needed her rebate and there was no interest in developing NI as it was and still is of not political or economic interest to Westminster. As for the road structure, why was the City of Derry neglected so much in preference to Coleraine?

  • Skibo

    MU I find it difficult to accept the published works of Henry Patterson mainly due to the fact that he set out with a conclusion and then used the facts and sources to back it up. I find the quotation from “The Pensive Quill” best describes my feelings.
    “It is easy to understand why so many nationalists and republicans continue to respond negatively to the kind of revisionist scholarship exemplified by Patterson. During the 50-year existence of the old Stormont regime, nationalists and republicans experienced institutional discrimination from a sectarian polity that relegated them to the status of second-class citizens. The legacy of that regime lingers on today. One part of the legacy is that the Stormont regime spawned an associated Stormont scholarship that relegates nationalist and republicans to the status of second-class research sources, whose views can be ignored or otherwise marginalized in emerging narratives of the nature of politics in the north. The “hierarchy of citizenship” of the Stormont regime and the “hierarchy of victims” of contemporary debates about the past have as an academic corollary the “hierarchy of research subjects.”

  • Skibo

    Then support the right for the DPP to investigate the actions of the security forces with the same rigour that they prosecuted Republicans during the Troubles and we will not have a problem.
    The discrepancy happened during the troubles where security forces who broke the law were in general given an easier time and sometimes the Army investigation took precedence over all other investigations.

  • Skibo

    Yes of course I would. The Republic was the area left after Unionism had decided what it could hold. Obviously there were not enough Unionists left in those areas. The actions of setting up NI also led to people moving from one part of Ireland to another as well. There was nothing democratic about the setting up of either region. It was done to please Unionism.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    What a load of codswallop. “Stormont scholarship”?? There is no such actual thing. You impugn the reputation of a highly regarded historian it seems on the basis that he’s as critical of nationalist politicians as he is unionist. Far from being some UUP patsy, Patterson is a serious scholar whose politics are actually solidly on the left. He’s been highly critical of the UUP governments of the mid 20th Century. I think maybe you just don’t want your comfortable myths about NI challenged.

  • Skibo

    No need to get up on your high horse. You have obviously raised Henry Patterson as his documentation backs your story. My story is from the streets in Nationalist areas, deprived of housing, jobs and infrastructure.
    Ever heard the saying lies, damned lies and statistics.

  • Dan

    They are