Round up on McGuinness: Steering a path between pragmatic realism and terrorism’s soft sentimentality…

Jenny McCartney makes up both for some of the more anodyne hagiography and avoids the pitfalls of some of the more un-contextualised moral outrage by rooting her analysis in the lived reality of the IRA Army Council’s (failed) Long War strategy…

Belfast in the 1970s and ’80s was a grey, fortified city, compelling in many ways, but permanently charged with the unpredictable electricity of violence.

Our local news steadily chronicled the shattering of families, in city streets and down winding border lanes that were full of birdsong before the bullets rang out. There were regular, respectful interviews with pallid widows and dazed widowers, and funerals attended by red-eyed, snuffling children tugged into stiff, smart clothes to pay formal respects to the end of family life as they had known it.

The murders arrived singly or in pairs, via gunshot or car bombs, occasionally bursting into more audacious atrocities that claimed many lives simultaneously. The names of the bigger ones — Claudy, La Mon, Enniskillen — stained the memory with a vivid horror. And the knowing strategist behind much of this killing was the young Martin McGuinness.

Kevin Toolis in Friday’s FT told a story (££s) about the late deputy First Minister’s sensitivity to anything which disturb the serene outward calm of his party’s big stage production of what became known as the Peace Process™:

The year was 1991 and I was standing behind Martin McGuinness as he peered through the keyhole of a flimsy wooden frontdoor in Londonderry at a 16-strong squad of British Marines armed with two general purpose machine guns and SA80 rifles.

“Bastards”‘ McGuinness said with undisguised venom as we used the door as a barracade to avoid further questioning. Looking at the equally flimsy Yale lock, I asked sheepishly: “What do we do if the soldiers knock on the door?”

“We don’t let them in” McGuiness said authoritatively.

The encounter pointed to one of the paradoxes of the Troubles: McGuiness, the former Irish Republican Army commander could be harrassed but not arrested by British soldiers, even though no other living person was a greater danger to the British state.

For a brief moment McGuinness’ imperturble mask had slipped and the vengeful IRA chieftan he was had been revealed.

This was the McGuinness who commanded members of his IRA brigade to bomb his native city and hunt out suspected British informers and collaborators regardless of the human toll.

Revealing that momentary lapse in McGuinness’s otherwise remarkable calm was something for which McGuinness would never forgive me. After I published the details of the encounter in a book, he never spoke to me again. He was offended I had quoted his swearing.

In today’s Sunday Independent, Eoghan Harris often says what no one else will (and gets little thanks for it).  But his piece usefully adds some context for Toolis’ account of the McGuinness’s raw anger on the public, and why he was generally careful not to reveal it publicly:

The main reason McGuinness got only 13pc of the vote at the presidential election was because he was challenged about IRA crimes. People also noted McGuinness’s cold anger with Miriam O’Callaghan, famously caught by the Herald headline: ‘McGuinness goes ballistic at Miriam.’

Last week, cowardly Irish politicians proved my contention that the consensus against violence in the Republic is a leaky consensus that becomes a flood as soon as Sinn Fein runs a propaganda funeral for a compliant RTE.

He adds:

Sinn Fein is grooming the Irish Republic. The sweets come in the form of two political tropes, packaged in bright green.

The first toxic trope is that of the ‘warrior turned statesman’, a constant invitation to idealistic young people to pursue violence because political precedent promises redemption. The second trope is the “peace process”, a weaponising of words that twists them to mean the exact opposite.

[So, ‘respect our unionist neighbours‘ translates as a ‘we’ll break these bastards‘? – Ed] Just yesterday’s chip paper, I guess.

Ed Moloney, as one the closest thing we have to a detailed chronicler of the IRA (which has earned him the undying loathing of the faithful, old and young), had this to say in the News Letter (a paper transformed by Sam McBride’s sheer work rate and focus):

I almost lost count of the number of times that journalists asked if I could pinpoint Martin McGuinness’ Damascene moment, the point in his life when he turned away from violence and embraced the path of peace to sit on the staircase at Stormont grinning alongside Ian Paisley. I replied that I couldn’t because I didn’t think there was one.

Why? He considers the fate of Caroline Moreland, a 34 year old single mother of three shot 17th July 1994 for giving up an IRA arms dump and ‘tried’ and executed by them just weeks before the official Provisional IRA ceasefire.

McGuinness, claimed one of Moloney’s sources, argued internally that the woman be ‘disappeared’ “so no-one, not least those in government and the media sceptical about the IRA’s peaceful bona fides, would know that she had been killed”.

…how does this square with the ‘Martin McGuinness as the man of peace’ narrative? I don’t think it does. While some would argue that Caroline Moreland’s violent death helped settle grassroots IRA nerves and was a necessary sacrifice to keep the rank and file on board for the larger peace process enterprise further down the road, that argument dissolves if her body was dumped in a secret hole in the ground and no-one knew what had happened to her. Instead it becomes an act of callous, selfish cruelty.

Ruth Dudley Edwards has been on the offensive against McGuinness and SF all last week, and now into this one. But yesterday she probably got closest to revealing the man’s real professionalism and talent (which SF will genuinely struggle to replace):

…on duty, McGuinness was not just charming and polite, but was one of those rare people whose ego never got in the way of achieving the result he wanted. He knew the importance of doing the necessary homework to establish common ground – the cricket statistics that impressed North Secretary Peter Hain, the knowledge of Burnley soccer team that enchanted Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s ruthless spin doctor, and the biblical passages that impressed Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson in chats about Christian faith.

He set out to make power-sharing work to persuade the southern electorate that Sinn Fein had become respectable, was committed to peace, might make good coalition partners and in 2018 should elect him President.

But he pulled down Stormont in the end, because, unlike him, Gerry Adams was unable to control the angry republicans and the only solution was an ethnic, drum-banging election. His last contribution was to plan a funeral that would satisfy Derry while playing well everywhere else.

If Mairtin’s poetic farewell to the party’s lodestar icon, they almost certainly will struggle:

His was a life spent in selfless service. A life of patriotic and enduring endeavor. A life of endurance, resolve and unstoppable commitment. Until just after midnight on March 20, he was our North Star.

…on every occasion, his integrity and nobility brought his people with him. His every action inspired confidence and courage in others. His humor and big heart got us through the trials of politics. His compassion and kindness emboldened us to reach further and higher.

In Saturday’s Guardian, Jonathan Freedland quoted yours truly:

His reputation was for clear-eyed, unflinching brutality. “We should not forget how effective he was as the head of a ruthless killing machine,” says Mick Fealty, who runs the much-admired Slugger O’Toole blog.

He adds that McGuinness’s acts of violence, for instance targeting Protestant-owned businesses in Derry, drove large parts of that community out of their home town.

Given all that, one can hardly blame Norman Tebbit – whose wife was left paralysed by the Brighton bombing of 1984 – for hoping that McGuinness will spend eternity burning in “a particularly hot and unpleasant corner of hell”.

In the years since that accord was signed, the UK terrorism annual death toll has hovered close to zero, and there it has remained – with the gruesome exception of 2005, the year of 7/7.

And this is what makes McGuinness’s life so complicated to assess.

Regarding that other face of McGuinness, Breda O’Brien argues it is imperative to give it its full play:

The violent deaths he ordered or carried out can never be undone. But surely his subsequent actions should have a great bearing on how he is now viewed?

A high price was paid for the partial peace in the North: the willingness to forgo judicial punishment for those who committed acts of terrible violence.

One of the reasons that the peace process in the North has not progressed is because, despite the creation of new institutions, the anger, the distrust and the cynicism remain. Forgiveness has not happened.

Forgiveness does not mean excusing the past, but full acknowledgement of it, and being merciful anyway.

Alf McCreary argues that to deny the dark side of McGuinness is to undersell his decision to turn his back on his violent past. A past so harsh to countenance that it’s hard for many to gaze at full in the face. Although as Elish O’Hanlon says:

…making token mild references to it, wrapped in comforting euphemism – is treacherous because it allows a corny, romanticised version of history to flourish, and sentimentality was always the most lethal weapon that nationalist extremists had in their armoury. [emphasis added]

Martina Devlin sees an upside and reads Sinn Fein’s speeches as an indication of an early return to Stormont…

Mrs Foster has shown leadership. She has been the butt of justifiable criticism in recent months, but a simple act of showing respect in Derry ought to stand her in good stead if she is returned as first minister. She has demonstrated her ability to compromise.

Handshakes at the service between Mr Adams and Mr Robinson, and Mrs Foster and Mrs O’Neill, were also encouraging. A handshake is no guarantee of agreements being struck, but it offers the possibility.

She could be right. The current dead end was widely predicted, but the extension is easily facilitated by Westminster’s Easter break, which suggests we are still a long from the sharp business end of negotiations.

  • Nevin

    In the absence of hard facts commentators may place too much value on their own judgements. Here are a couple of sentences from Jenny McCartney’s article to illustrate the point:

    “The violence stopped not because it was bad morality, but because it was becoming bad strategy.”

    Ed Moloney appears to take the view that the PRM management was persuaded that it could make greater headway if it tried the Redemptorist ‘stepping stones’ approach.

    “The intelligence services had penetrated the IRA’s inner circle to a degree that made operations increasingly difficult.”

    ‘Intelligence services’ glosses over the agendas, possibly at times conflicting agendas, of MI6, MI5 and RUC Special Branch.

    When you bring these two sentences together you can see how some folk in the intelligence community might have been tasked with providing some support to those in the PRM who were convinced of the merits of the Redemptorist proposals.

    Of course, I’m drawing upon my own judgement as well as some material provided by British and Irish civil servants – and assuming that there will be a few white lies along the way!

  • Christopher Mc Camley

    I would have thought coming third in first preferences in a presidential election was pretty good, given the number of candidates and the general abuse that Martin McGuinness got. Certainly outperformed FG.

  • woodkerne

    In the absence of new, reliable evidence (as opposed to more misinformation originated by uncited sources in the state or secret-state and/or further speculation, of the kind reported here, by partisan commentators), I, for one, am tiring of this non-subject.

    I say non-subject, on two main grounds. First, no-one is seriously doubting that Martin McGuinness was throughout his career the defacto commander of the IRA. It is at the most, in the scheme of things, a semantic detail maintained for the purposes of the peace process public discourse. As the man who demonstrably possessed the unique authority, in Bertie Ahern’s vivid phrase, ‘to go into the caves’, McGuinness’s dual role throughout the Troubles is precisely what made him a) important to speak and listen to and b) effective. So why continue to run that story, other than a futile wish to impugn? Second, as the – what shall we call it – nescafe (instant) myth of ‘warrior-turned-peacemaker’ is, let us be clear, a product primarily of the narrative needs of professional journalism, I fail to see why journalists and the usual-suspects of the Dublin commentariat are railing against it as an unwarrentedly flattering fabrication. Of course it is a fabrication! in the way that (needing an accessible angle and trope to hang the story on within the tabloid immediacy of the news agenda) the ‘eternal recurrence’ of news-story writing demands.

    On a signal point of the preferred narrative (which in this instance your chosen commentators reject, although, to be clear, they as much as any other of their profession, are complicit in the production of, if only by denouncing the prevailing myth in contrapuntal terms that amplify the original motif), Ed Moloney is surely right. There was no (quasi-religious) conversion (the latter theme, too, being an additional layer of the prevailing myth).

    This isn’t to say, however, that the really significant turning-point of the IRA & Sinn Fein’s re-formulaltion of strategic objectives cannot be isolated. It seems to me, through examining the record, it can. But because of the stereo-noise of myth-making in one ear and bish-bash begrudgery in the other, so far, the sounds of disinterested appraisal on the matter of profound historiographical significance cannot be heard. Namely the when and why of it. Why, in the period circa 1985–87, did Martin McGuinness (and others in the republican leadership) revise their vocabulary, emphatically, away from the vainglorious war-cry of a ‘United Ireland’ to be achieved on the ‘cutting edge ‘ of the IRA’s campaign of political terror, towards John Hume’s consensual talk of an ‘agreed Ireland’? In retrospect, this was clearly a key shift of historic significance in Ireland’s past century of ‘unfinished revolution’ – a genuine cresting of the hill on the road to a final cessation of physical force.

    To ask in the interests of history-writing whether Martin McGuinness was a good man or a bad man, or a bad man turned good man, or bad man pretending to be a good man, seems to me, utterly fatuous in missing to analyse the subjects that really matter in the course of his life and times, and notably in the middle years of the 1980s.

  • Reader

    Keep it real: Yet with her list of what she claims as “the bigger ones” (of, we are
    led to believe, Troubles bombings) omitting McGurk’s Bar and Dublin, the
    more inquisitive of her readers only have IRA atrocities to Google,
    serving the cognitive dissonance that the Troubles were one-sided.

    The common feature on her list is that she associates each of them with the Martin McGuinness’es IRA. Which seems to be a perfectly reasonable selection criterion in an article about Martin McGuinness.