I awoke last Tuesday morning to the unexpected news that shocked us all and experienced the odd emotions that accompany comprehending an earthly existence ending. Unsurprisingly what followed was a mixed bag of media commentary and public opinion, that spanned from the praising of a Republican freedom fighter to the condemning of a terrorist warlord. Of course between these extremes was the telling of a life of two halves and the impact that Martin McGuinness made in the establishment of peace in Northern Ireland. Perhaps what is the cause of most debate is the weighting of these two halves in our memory.
In the midst of this media storm last Tuesday as we talked of the past, our future and the path that brought us here, I was struck by an underlying tension that existed in conversations, on social media and even in the pit of my stomach as I absorbed a variety of tweets and articles. This tension occurs frequently in public life, but was greatly heightening as the passing of Martin McGuinness caused a retrospective glance at the last fifty years and a resurgence of the emotions that are embroiled for so many in those days. For me this was a reminder of the fragility of the peace that Martin McGuinness and many others worked to establish. It was a reminder that this peace only extends as far as an end to violence and does not include peace of mind. It was a reminder that division is ever present and exists at a deeply emotional level.
If you’re reading this article to find my opinion or eulogy of Martin McGuinness sadly you’ll be disappointed. I have nothing more to add to the great wealth of public opinion on this man, nor do I feel I have the grounds or first-hand experience of those days, to add anything of meaning. As someone who grew up in peace time and who hopefully has the majority of my life to come, what concerns me is the legacy.
“What will the legacy of Martin McGuinness be?” has been a much asked question of late. The responses vary. For many the legacy is peace, hope and an end to violence. For some McGuinness’ involvement in the IRA has left a legacy of pain, grief and loss as people live daily with the scars of the Troubles and mourn the victims of the conflict. For some the legacy is the chance of a United Ireland, which is now a greater possibility through the Good Friday Agreement. I agree that all of these legacies are true for different people across the province and beyond but what if we could all share another legacy? What if the legacy of Martin McGuinness and the many other figures of Northern Ireland’s political past was a legacy of togetherness, a spirit of understanding, an ability to coexist and live shared lives, whilst enjoying political and cultural diversity? Whether this legacy is because of or in spite of these figures varies for each of us but it is a legacy none the less.
What will it take to achieve this legacy? A lot. It will require great humility and an abandonment of prejudice. It will require us to put head over heart and make hard choices and sacrifices. It will take what it took for our forefathers to betray their instincts, “negotiate with terrorists” and cease the armed fight for what they believed in. It will take what brought ever inch of reconciliation and restoration thus far. To bring about this change we must judge the actions of our own community in the same way we judge the other. We must work to understand the complexity of our past and garner lessons from it. We must learn to disagree well and appreciate the validity of a different national identity. The next chapter of Northern Ireland is in our hands and it will be by our hard work that it becomes the place we hope for.
Although I wasn’t greatly enthused by many of the words spoken after Martin McGuinness’ death, I did find great hope in the final words of President Bill Clinton at the funeral, “He earned the right to ask us to honour his legacy by our living, to finish the work that is there to be done.” Let’s be the legacy!!!
Josh Gilmore is a County Down boy with a passion politics, peace building, folk music and good coffee. He is currently an intern researcher with Evangelical Alliance NI.