The life and career of Martin McGuinness will fit neatly into Derry, a tale of two sieges

More than we could have  realised as children,  the generation of Martin McGuiness, Gregory Campbell and people like me was shaped by the physical contours of a city which more than anywhere defines  historic division in reality and metaphor.

I was brought up in the shadow of the siege cathedral  at the highest point in what was  very much London’s Derry. We lived next door to the Georgian townhouse of the old city’s 17th century founders, the Honourable the Irish Society of City of London livery companies, who are still landowners in chief. Opposite us, the Regency courthouse still very much in business today; across the street, the massive bulk of the palace built by the bishop who was the grandest of English 18th century magnates, the Earl of Bristol. The buildings proclaim what had once been the richest diocese in Ireland sustained by tithes,  landowner rents and concessions. By the mid 20th century, the revenues had largely  dried up and it had become  a pale shadow of its former self. The inherited pride of us Protestants as children of the Glorious Revolution was great but entirely vicarious.  Real life lay just outside the city walls in the Fountain, where my father’s generation was born and reared. Its long demolished little early Victorian streets have been fondly memorialised in mural photographs to soften the harshness of the peace wall.  By a well observed but unspoken compact, this was not natural McGuinness territory. He records that he took his mother up on the walls for the first time in her eighties.

From the Fountain and my old home, St Columba’s Long Tower where Martin McGuinness’s funeral mass was celebrated, is fully a two minute stroll and a world away. As the name Temple Mor implies, it is the oldest ecclesiastical site in the city, being traditionally the site of Colmcille’s first monastery. Beside the retaining wall of the churchyard, steps lead down to the  Bogside, to a point then known less evocatively  as the junction of Rossville St, Lecky Road and Stanley’s Walk. On the immediate left  the Gasworks, reeking and functioning in my youth, commandered later as an IRA headquarters and now imaginatively transformed into a Neighbourhood centre with childcare and educational facilities. Two minutes to the right, Cable St and a Sinn Fein office and Martin McGuinness’ home nearby.   Ten minutes up the hill and to the left, the City Cemetery.

In my childhood, from St Columb’s Church of Ireland cathedral the  curfew bell still rang out –    but ceremonially only by now; 9 pm Catholics out of the walled city, 9 am Catholics allowed back in. It was the lingering legacy of that old prohibition that on 5th October 1968 prompted the ban on the civil rights march from entering the city centre, while new members of the Apprentice Boys order were being inducted inside the walls, as their rule required. This was the flashpoint that ignited the Troubles.  Londonderry the Unionist town had a Catholic majority, as I had been  quite late in learning. From that moment it ceased to be tolerated.

In his book War and an Irish Town Eamonn McCann captures the sense not so much of oppression, as affront and outrage that required the challenge of demos  inspired by socialist vision. This after all was the age of worldwide student rebellion.  In those comparatively innocent days, the war that transpired was beyond contemplation. James Doherty’s butcher’s boy had failed the 11 plus. He felt a deeper sense of rage that must have lasted 20 years.

After his resignation, outside his home and with tears in his eyes, he spoke to the crowd of his  fundamental love of the place. Great sentimentality about roots he shared with Gerry Adams. Deep in his mind and perhaps in expiation for  the ruthlessness that  put his own people through so much, was he thinking that he did it all for Derry?

At his funeral, the brutality  was briefly acknowledged and the subsequent peace commemorated with national and international celebrity. Compared to the old days of the huddled slums and then the cauldron of conflict among the 1960s flats and courts now largely gone, the Bogside itself has become a half empty  post-Troubles heritage centre.   The walls here commemorate a later and different version of freedom from the old walled city above. A lonely gable end proclaims Free Derry Corner retained to commemorate  the siege of our time, of no go areas and fateful military incursions. A longer siege than 1688-89 and like it, in part self imposed.  A comparison of sieges is irresistible :  some Protestant freedoms won in 1690, Catholics freedoms won in 1998. Was either of them worth it?

The scene has shifted. As Miriam Lord describes it, the historic walls became a mere vantage point for onlookers at the funeral scene below. Sinn Fein stewards were fully in charge, not an official uniform in sight, despite Bill Clinton’s presence.  With just a little of the edge taken off, the Protestant DUP MP Gregory Campbell gave his response to the death of the fellow Derry man, ex-IRA leader and professed devout Catholic with whom he will forever be compared.

On a green hill not far away overlooking the whole scene, Martin McGuinness lies buried near the  Republican  plot, a couple of hundred yards away from my baby brother, my grandparents and a great- grandfather.  Apart but close by. In life, so in death.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London