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.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty