McGuinness’s transformation from violent brigand to civic leader will be a hard act to follow

By way of a quick round up on reactions yesterday, I’ll start with my own thoughts on the Irish Times Inside Politics podcast above. Personally, I liked what I encountered of him, but then the only Martin McGuinness I knew was the public peacemaker.

The accounts we’ve been hearing describe two different people, each as seemingly authentic as the other: a Janus-faced soldier-cum-broker of peace. But Mary Lou is right to suggest he hadn’t changed much: he always moved in lock step with his organisation.

His directness, his lack of fear, and willingness to do whatever had to be done all spring from that odd sort of innocence which former soldiers (even former enemies) recognise in each other in the long days after all their fighting is done.

Barney Rowan made a good point on UTV about his ability to get the small things human right, remembering people’s names, asking after their wives and children and generally keeping up relations even when there was little evidence that anything was going anywhere.

As Alistair Campbell observes in the Guardian “you could have a really straight conversation with McGuinness”. He’d listen, disagree and argue with you with a degree of equanimity that all too often escaped some of his shorter-fused subalterns.

Not that he didn’t have a temper. More than once in the early days of the peace process he looked as if he might storm out of an extremely hot encounter with Jeremy Paxman. But he’d been hotter still in his younger days.

As PIRA commander in Derry, he was responsible for laying waste to the business district of his hometown: triggering a sharp exodus of Protestants out of the city. With informers, he understood the Machiavellian value of administering cold fear. In one notorious case:

A tape containing his interrogation and admissions that he had worked as an informer was later delivered to the Hegarty home.

Norman Tebbitt’s somewhat unmannerly remarks yesterday morning spoke for many of the silent victims of the Provisional IRA (who killed 1768 for the loss of just 294). It’s not a side to the former dFM that many like to consider in public these days, but this bitterness too is part of his legacy.

So what of the vacuum he leaves behind? As I said in the IT podcast above, this was always coming. As Stephen Bush noted in his morning email yesterday from the New Statesman blog, The Staggers, although much of the heavy lifting has been done:

…there’s no reason to believe that peace in Northern Ireland will be any more durable than the constant expansion of the European Union or the commitment of the United States to free trade and a rules-based global order, both once as symbolic of the latter half of the 20th Century as McGuinness’ transition from armed struggle to peace.

It may be that his late career is remembered not only as a high point for McGuinness personally but also for peace in Northern Ireland.

Maybe. With no working institutions extant, nothing should be taken for granted. However, Alistair Campbell focuses on a more near-term legacy Martin leaves behind:

…it is sad that the last chapter of his political life was the breakdown of the power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland that triggered the most recent election.

The swift and ruthless way the institutions were hauled down at the very moment the dFM’s health began to fail him leaves some tricky business to be tackled before it can be realistically put back together again.

Not least how their mandatory coalition partners of ten years, the DUP handle what they see as a deep treachery over an issue (RHI) they believe they’d agreed to manage together, and over which Gerry Adams post-election now says the First Minister is likely innocent.

That’s not the class of mis-speaking the more cautious and careful McGuinness would have made. His skills and experience as a trusted interlocutor are a loss for the party, not least because the hasty and unplanned manner of his departure suggest difficult times lie ahead.

Succession wise, his strong personal narrative of transformation from violent brigand to civic leader is a hard act to follow. But with luck, whether it’s Michelle O’Neill or even Colum Eastwood, they’ll be able to pick up where he left off, and not from where he began.

And they won’t necessarily share one of his more obvious limitations as a political leader: his unwillingness to criticise the poor decisions he and his party made in the past.

That not only cuts deep with victims, but it severely limits the sort of appeal needed to bring about Nationalism’s ultimate objective.


  • mickfealty

    You should have read a little further down, because it’s much older than colonial times and it comes from Old Italian and Middle French ( ):

    1350-1400; variant of Middle English briga (u) nt < Middle French brigand < Old Italian brigante companion, member of an armed company, equivalent to brig (are) to treat, deal (with), make war (derivative of briga trouble, strife; of uncertain origin)

    “Company of friends armed for the purposes of making war” covers it for me. I wanted a word that that would dig beneath the cliched and sterile binaries of terrorist/freedom fighter.

    It certainly fits younger Derry-based Martin like a hand fits a glove.

  • mickfealty
  • mickfealty

    Cliche you mean? Nah. Orwell warned us about two things in political writing: “staleness of imagery; and lack of precision”. I spent a bit of time looking for that word, and chose it because it is old and unabused by modern, propagandistic uses.

    I wanted off those hooks to take us closer to what he actually was. He was violent by reputation and association with some of the IRA’s most deadly actions, but I think, to be fair to him and the wider ark of his career, it was not for its own sake.

    See here for a deeper definition of the word Brigand :

  • Tom Smith

    Slugger O’Toole deserves to be commended for being, mostly, balanced in the articles it publishes. As a unionist it is frustrating at times trying to engage meaningfully with many of those of a nationalist persuasion. In the main they don’t.

    Whataboutery is their default setting. I have never been able to get a response to a challenge about nationalist terrorist that did not immediately push the ‘Brit button’.

    Of course a number of other tactics are also employed. You’ve experienced a favourite one already, that the ‘unionist narrative’ takes precedence. This faux argument is an obvious attempt to shutdown the unionist perspective. They desire to turn a tin ear to the ‘other’, to delegitimise the unionist viewpoint.

    Another tactic is the mob. Read back over any number of threads and look at how unionist posters gather a tail of opposing voices as soon as they appear. ‘Mainland Ulsterman’ is the case in point. They don’t engage they shout down. MU’s, in common with others, arguments are often twisted into shapes he never positioned and then those self-manufactured points are the ones challenged.

    Most balefully is the almost immediate assumption that the very fact that one is a unionist means ingrained bigotry and sectarianism and commentary from nationalists is predicated on that view. This approach is now so embedded as to be, seemingly, subconsciously set in stone.

  • ted hagan

    Jim works for the Sunday Indo. Sure you know what they’re like.

  • ted hagan

    Can we lower the union jack to mark your departure?

  • ted hagan

    The British have been incompetent in Northern Ireland since Day One.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I have the right to judge anyone.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    there’s nothing faux about the outrage. You may disagree with people who feel it, but we do genuinely feel it. Surely you are not genuinely surprised many people feel that way? To not feel that way, you have to accept a Republican analysis and you know only a minority of people are Republicans. So why the surprise and outrage on your part when you come across one in public?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    “unqualified support for the actions of state forces”?
    I hope you’re not referring to me, because that is not my line. I am a lot more generous to them than you for sure and I support them, but not many of the unionists on here are the sort that justify murder by rogue members of state forces – and I certainly don’t.

    “constant denial of collusion”
    What I hope I’ve done, with others on here, is ask questions about what collusion means in the context of intelligence work with informers – and I think I have made some points there that have gone unanswered. As the Da Silva Report showed, there were a couple of rogue units within the security forces, operating in certain areas for certain periods of time particularly in the 70s, who did effectively collude with Loyalists. This was an appalling episode. But Da Silva also found this was not at all typical of the overall approach of the security forces to Loyalism, and that the security forces – and justice system – were much more effective against Loyalism than against Republicanism. The ‘collusion’ agenda of Republicans is intent on trying to drive into the public consciousness untruths about how the security forces’ generally operated, their motivations and their record, in order to make their supporters feel morally comfortable about the IRA’s vicious sectarian attacks on those same forces. It needs to be called out.

    “head in the sand approach to Unionist parties relationship with loyalist terrorists”
    Speaking personally again, I have been very willing to enter into conversations on Slugger about this, there has been no head in the sand from me. But again, the Republican tactic is to exaggerate and give thereby a misleading impression as to the nature of unionist attitudes towards Loyalist paramilitaries. There have been some great books on this and I would just direct you to the work of say Prof Steve Bruce or Prof Peter Shirlow who have done the hard yards of academic work on unionism and Loyalist paramilitarism. Of course there are links – but I’ve been trying to provide a more accurate account of the nature of those links, from what I’ve read and from my time as a unionist in N Ireland myself. Republicans want to pretend the mainstream unionist parties are just Protestant versions of SF; and any condemnation of terror was either not meant, or was hypocritical. There is an avalanche of evidence this is not the case. There is a Protestant version of SF, it’s the PUP. But that’s too small fry for SF, they want to get the UUP and DUP. That’s not because it’s an accurate comparison, but because they are the main unionist parties. The classic ‘colour of the wallpaper’ quote from Ervine in the tone of a shock revelation shows how not normal it was that a Loyalist paramilitary would find themselves in the home of a unionist politician. No one in the Republican Movement would dream of making such a comment, because SF and the IRA were in and out of each other’s homes on a daily basis – indeed were often the same actual people.

  • Granni Trixie

    Wimp! I often feel under attack but I’ll be damned if I’ll let it get to me,

  • Granni Trixie

    “It’s very sad”
    “ofcourse its to be regretted..”
    “Many people have died on all sides”

  • Hugh Davison

    Have to say, Mick, I’ve never heard a unionist version of the past. Maybe deep down they don’t want to acknowledge their role in it?

  • Hugh Davison

    Sounds like you’re suffering from the ‘persecutor-victim’ paradox. Denial is full of crocodiles.

  • Hugh Davison

    ‘Another tactic is the mob.’ Just look at you. Here comes Chrisjones2 and The worm! Nationalists to the core.

  • Hugh Davison

    Children need milk.

  • Hugh Davison

    Your question was full of implied accusation. But you knew that, didn’t you?

  • Hugh Davison

    The Daily Mail?

  • Hugh Davison

    What’s ‘De Nurth’, Chris?

  • mickfealty

    Try chapter one of this:

  • Jollyraj

    Well, why not answer the question (s) and we’ll go from there, hmm?

  • Hugh Davison

    Cheers, Mick

  • Skibo

    I guess you can pick what ever description you desire Mick but the generally accepted description is “a member of a gang that ambushes and robs people in forests and mountains.”
    As for a company of friends armed for the purpose of war, that could also be a description of the B-specials or the UDR or indeed the British Army. They were all susceptible and armed for the purpose to make war.
    Rouget de Lise would have described England as l’affreux brigand de la Tamise and being a French man I consider his use of the french word brigand to be of a more obvious example.

  • Skibo

    So now you agree that such carpet bombing of civilian targets were wrong, you want to deflect the blame. i thought Britain won the war all on her own and the Yanks got there too late!
    I challenge the right of the British to condemn anyone on war crimes when they still have so many skeletons in their wardrobes.

  • Skibo

    Mick I listen and I listen and I listen to the extent that I wonder how any of the troubles could ever have happened. Then I return to my own community and I listen to what it was like to grow up as a Nationalist in Northern Ireland.
    I hear so many Unionist politicians telling me what my community really thinks yet I do not hear their words repeated from within my community.
    Perhaps, just perhaps it is Unionism that has to listen to the Nationalist community for a while and actually take it in.
    The reason I give my views on your post is that I have something to share. It is the views of the Nationalist community as I hear it.
    That may not be what you have been used to before. There has always been a certain amount of silence out of the Nationalist community because to side with Republicanism was to side with death and destruction and it was difficult to get the Nationalist message out, but that is changing. I see other people standing up and being prepared to speak out for their community.
    Things are better now but that same old rhetoric is still ringing, republicanism bad, Unionism good.
    For anyone to call NI anything but a sectarian state set up on a head-count where power and the democratic process was used and abused to further the stranglehold of Big House Unionism and the orange order’s hold on society is rewrite the true history of Northern Ireland.
    Republicanism is not asking to rewrite history, just write their own. Unionism has never permitted that to happen.

  • Skibo

    ND I do not defend the actions of the IRA. I try to understand them.
    Had Unionism tried to understand the position of the Nationalist community in the 60s or accepted Sunningdale in the 70’s would we really have had such a death toll?
    ND every year you will glorify the British Army and for some within your community that also includes the UVF and the UDA. The actions of killing innocent people seem to take on an acceptance when there are enough of them. The British Army have left swathes of innocent people dead all over the world yet still you salute them.
    There will always be people who believe they have to fight to defend their community and their way of life. It will not include every person in a community otherwise Britain would not have had to introduce conscription for two world wars

  • Skibo

    Tom where did I defend the IRA murdering people? There is a difference in understanding why something happens and defending it.
    As for the FARC, while I am not an expert on them, I believe they controlled swathes of the country where government forces did not go. That would have made it possible for them to hold prisoners. “Interchangeables” is something that used to happen regularly with warring factions and still happens between Israel and the Palestinians.