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.