“‘bad’ people can sometimes do good things, perhaps even for bad motives…”

Sorry to keep on, but I think this from Chris Dillow not only gets the balance right on McGuinness’s legacy, he also gets something right about the inscrutable nature of democratic politics that we would do well to take more account of:

…a closer analogy with McGuinness’s change, is the role Lyndon Johnson played in the passage of the Civil Rights Act. LBJ was a racist – certainly by today’s standards and perhaps even by those of his time.

Such attitudes, however, gave him influence with southern segregationists that Kennedy – who had proposed the Act – never had. LBJ thus managed to force the Act through Congress whereas Kennedy failed. JFK might have been more acceptable to decent people, but LBJ did the job.

LBJ was both a racist and an advancer of blacks’ rights, just as McGuinness was both a murderer and a force for peace. And both men were one because they were the other.

George Bernard Shaw famously said that “all progress depends upon the unreasonable man*.” This might be an exaggeration, but one way in which it is true is that the unreasonable man can persuade other unreasonable men in a way that moderates cannot.

And he adds this:

Many people think of politics as a low-grade morality play in which good people – people like us, naturally, because we lack the faculties of self-criticism – oppose bad people.

But it isn’t always so. McGuinness and Johnson show that “bad” people can sometimes do good things, perhaps even for bad motives. And the converse can also be true: good people can do bad things. The social sciences are  often complex emergent processes: outcomes aren’t always reducible to individuals’ intentions.

Personally, I’d like to see less moral posturing and tribalism in politics and more inquiry into how to build structures that increase the chances of bad people doing good things and lessen the chances of good ones doing bad things. But this is a forlorn hope. [Emphasis added]



  • Deeman

    Most political leaders kill or they are responsible for deaths either directly or indirectly. I can’t think of any major political leader in the U.K or USA who hasn’t been involved in some sort of conflict or other.

  • Abucs

    The reasonable man tries to adapt himself to the world.
    The unreasonable man tries to adapt the world to himself.
    Therefore all hope lies with the unreasonable man.

    Always admired this insight.

  • jm

    Thanks for highlighting this blog. Something new to read when I should be working 🙂 I think Ed Maloney made a similar point in a piece for the Guardian:

    “..Adams turned to McGuinness to play the part of guarantor, to assure the IRA volunteers that the initiative was not a prelude to a sellout, that it simply could not be because McGuinness, the trusted soldier, the man who killed Mountbatten and planned Warrenpoint, would not be part of it, if it was.”

  • Brian Walker

    Now you’;ve got me going

    Slightly hard on LBJ. What we think of as racism today was pretty general And he was a Texan. All our societies were going through a revolution of awareness, LBJ included. A master manipulator of Congress right back to the Roosevelt era, he traded shamelessly on Kennedy’s assassination to get the Civil Rights Act, knowing that as a result, he and the Democrats “ lost the south.” That was political courage of a high order, Our little lot took risks but without comparable damage to their own cause.

    I didn’t mean to intervene again either but I still wonder how our politicians internalise the troubles. So much is suppressed, then something break out.

    What was it really like for McGuinness treading the boards of respectable politics when he had spent so long on the other side of the moon? I’m struck by how he and Adams over-sentimentalise their origins and seem to cling to the same place and way of life. It seems to be for more than appearances or old memories of on the run. See Adams’s writing etc. McGuinness had tears in his eyes as he announced his retirement outside his home in Westland Terrace. Speaking of his love for the place as bedrock was he saying he knew what he had put them through but he had done it all for Derry? Highly speculative I know. But I don’t think he was a psychopath and surely he had to come up with some rationalisation, if not outright expiation? We will never know. His omerta is a setback to those idealists who still that the truth will out,. But see Panorama reporting by John Ware on Stakeknife tonight.10.45 BBC1

    On the role of politicians generally , Foster included , if they have signed up to a power sharing agreement they are duty bound to put feelings aside that are understandable in private individuals. That doesn’t mean they should let old warriors ride roughshod over them but they should not be allowed to use bad personal experience to obstruct the public good. You will never get perfect balance but McGuiness by a his Traitors attack and support of the the PSNI went as far as could be expected.

    Oldies like me blow hot and cold and I’m resigned to that.. The final paradox is that while we desperately needed the old warriors to make the peace, society will be in a better place when they have all faded away.

    By the way, Fionnuala O’Connor is on form today On Bubba:

    “Bill Clinton is a swell performer. He turned in an entertaining cross between pep talk and eulogy for Martin McGuinness, swatch of corn, stir of hokum. But fix it for Martin? How likely was that? For a start, what inspiration were the parties to find in the McGuinness legacy? “

    And Michelle O’Neill is probably a puppet

    “A party that waves through a very senior appointment on the say-so of its president, without anything like a selection panel or internal election and also without any detectable resentment at that appointment, is clearly still a secretive entity with an energetic central command.
    “Would you like to say something, Michelle?” was a clunky segue. But the party president is also a person who has been on constant show, though just bereaved of a trusted ally over almost half a century.
    The seal of approval for O’Neill was mostly conferred with sureness.
    And if she turns out to be a NOT very senior appointment, the handover is even more revealing. Though her public performances have a strong air of the stand-in, that could be misleading, nerves and painful circumstances combining to suggest the bearded senior beside her had marked her script with cues for his contributions.
    O’Neill could turn out yet to be the new generation in action – no jail record, strong family and communal republican background, but an entire career in the service of republican politics rather than the last-stage management of IRA transition.
    She may have her own way of doing things. But the choreography so far has suggested that she is meant to be more figurehead than real.”


  • ted hagan

    This doesn’t square. LBJ was first and foremost a master politician who knew what the mood of the times, what to say, even it it was racist, what arms to twist, what favours to call in, and above all what his legacy would be.
    McGuinness on the other hand was initially a nihilistic terrorist whose aim was simply to blast Britain, and unionists, into submission and achieve a united Ireland.
    Yes he transformed into a man of peace, but only after realising the futility of his original, violent mission.

  • the rich get richer

    Fair enough…..but couldn’t the unreasonable man/woman also do a lot of damage……………….

    Another double edged sword perhaps……………

  • Deeman

    McGuinness planned Warrenpoint? Lol. ED baloney strikes again. Ed should check his Republican sources in south armagh. Does Ed even have sources? The guy uses fiction and his own imagination to fill in the blanks.

  • jm

    I thought Ed Maloney’s piece had a similar thought process to the one in the blog above. I do not have the knowledge to comment on what you say regarding Warrenpoint. I just thought it was interesting that I’d read several journalists making the same point about his legacy.

  • Macca

    “And the converse can also be true: good people can do bad things.”

    Indeed, and this observation could be applied to Martin McGuinness.

    One man’s “good” man is another man’s “bad” man and vice versa – context will always fog the lens.

  • Charlie Farlie

    And JM, you will read the same several journalists over and over again pulling assumptions out of the cupboard, now that he is dead, he can’t contradict them. There are some people who will remain forever cynical about Martin McGuinness and that is fine. But when they present their opinion as fact and refuse to present their sources on such matters they have to be taken with a pinch of salt as simply too many people have an axe to grind with McGuinness. Not least Maloney.

  • Skibo

    I don’t think Martin would refer to is past as futile, rather that it had run it’s usefulness.

  • Granni Trixie

    Your generalisation doesn’t sound right – were they footsoldiers?

  • Granni Trixie

    Insightful analysis Brian. You (and others) haven’t mentioned the word ‘conscience’ in looking at motivation to change especially in light of MMG apparently identifying with his religion. I think many are interested in that aspect.

    All over the world people are also trying to work out “what kind of a person turns to terrorism” which potentially can get us away from a tendency to stereotype as psychopaths.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I must admit I assume his faith must have had some very big private role in his conversion. I think I assumed this because of his acceptance by the Rev Ian Paisley – not a forgiving man generally, but one steeped (albeit to the point of utter weirdness) in his version of Christianity. So I’d always assumed that was how they ‘bonded’. And also because Paisley was very old and being First Minister was No1 on his bucket list.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    “What we think of as racism today was pretty general And he was a Texan. All our societies were going through a revolution of awareness, LBJ included.”

    I agree on that. True also of the quiet tribalism of that era in our neck of the woods?

    That’s something I think people judging contemporary unionists by citing some of the attitudes of the Stormont years tend to miss. Those years do not, in fact, define unionists today; they are rather misleading (NILT 2015: http://www.ark.ac.uk/nilt/2015/Community_Relations/SMARRRLG.html). Same I think goes for nationalists – support for violence against Protestants to force them into a united Ireland, once common, has now collapsed and is considered as absurdly of the past as gerrymandering. Good riddance to all those horrible old attitudes and behaviours – we’re in a better place now, genuinely. We forget that sometimes.

    Encouragingly, I also notice that according to Life and Times 2015, the percentage considering themselves neither unionist nor nationalist is 40 per cent (http://www.ark.ac.uk/nilt/2015/Political_Attitudes/UNINATID.html.) Things have certainly changed since LBJ’s time.

  • AntrimGael

    LBJ had a habit of loudly breaking wind regularly in front of his staff and political colleagues.

  • Granni Trixie

    Too much information.

  • Korhomme

    Zhou Enlai, the Chinese leader, is said to have responded to a question about the effects of the French revolution by saying, “It’s too early to tell”. (Actually, he probably meant the foment in Europe in the late 1960s.)

    So it is with Martin McG; it’s simply to early to know just what will happen in the next few years or decades; whether his efforts will indeed see a ‘united Ireland’, and if so what form that state will take; or whether NI will retrench into itself.

  • Korhomme

    Inside or outside the tent?

  • John Collins

    So he was a supporter of the age old invocation
    ‘Where ere you be
    let your wind go free’

  • New Yorker

    I agree that the comparison to LBJ is invalid and thus the whole piece falls apart. For one thing, LBJ was a a builder of consensus who was able to fashion and get passed very good legislation. The same could not be said of McGuinness. Because of Vietnam LBJ ultimately was a tragic figure whereas McGuinness caused many tragedies.

  • Kevin Breslin

    What if everyone hates you, you even hate yourself, no one considers you to be a good person in the slightest and you go on a killing rampage before committing suicide?

    Could such a bad guy be a bad guy to everybody?

  • Graemo

    ‘Because of Vietnam LBJ ultimately was a tragic figure whereas McGuinness caused many tragedies”

    I’m going to go out on a limb and say that their might be one or two Vietnamese children in a better place who would see things differently. Though I wasn’t keen on the man, I can only thank God that Martin McGuinness hadn’t a fraction of the blood on his hands that LBJ did.

  • Graemo

    I think he simply got to an age where he didn’t want the same for his kids, alongside a lot of people.

  • Zig70

    I would disagree that violence against Protestants was ever widely supported by nationalists. SDLP was the dominant political voice up to 2000 exceptions with hunger strike protest votes etc. If you listening to those who are loudest then you might get the wrong message.

  • New Yorker

    LBJ was ultimately a tragic figure because he accomplished much good but that was greatly diminished by his errors on Vietnam. McGuinness never had the stature to be considered tragic, just a guy who is personally responsible for many tragedies.

  • Gopher

    When one talks about using LBJ as an example two important factors spring to mind, one is the strategic morass of Vietnam which a man of more dubuous ethics, Nixon solved and the second is LBJ, did not seek re-election. The bottom line with Marty we will not know because he did not complete his journey. It was painfully obvious during the debates of the 2016 election that Marty was not “at it” I said as much on here at the time. Sometimes like LBJ you have to realiase the right time to go, Marty I will argue did not. Like everyone else I would have been curious to see the direction a fit and well Marty would have went.

  • Ciaran O’Neill

    Toby Harnden’s book, Bandit Country: The IRA and South Armagh is worth a read

  • Macca

    You don’t have to be “bad” to be hated.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Not majority supported but widely supported – nationalist vote split roughly one third / two thirds pro vs anti IRA during its terror campaign.