Author: George Reeves
The past three months have seen Northern Ireland descend into political crisis, a perilous state of affairs in a region where political troubles often spill out onto the streets. The collapse of the power-sharing agreement that underpins the Northern Irish government has led to snap elections, held earlier this month and producing yet more uncertainty, with the future of the devolved administration, the leadership of First Minister Arlene Foster, and indeed the entire concept of Northern Irish self-rule still at risk. Against this fraught backdrop, it is impossible not to see the cruel symbolism of today’s news that one of the key architects of the Northern Ireland peace process, Martin McGuinness, has died at the age of 66 just two months after he stood down as Deputy First Minister.
There have been few figures in contemporary British politics as complex and controversial as Martin McGuinness, and that complexity makes it very difficult to judge the place he deserves in history. After all, this was the man who served as the de facto leader of the IRA during the worst of that group’s bloody terrorist campaign, someone with a significant amount of innocent blood on his hands. However, there was another Martin McGuinness that emerged during the second half of his adult life; the lifelong terrorist who put down his weapons and encouraged others to do the same, the pragmatic politician who compromised with his enemies to forge a new political settlement for his troubled region, the hard-working leader who shared power with Ian Paisley and shook hands with the Queen. Which Martin McGuinness should we remember – the terrorist, the peacemaker, or both?
It is hard to criticise or judge the feelings of hatred directed towards McGuinness by those families who were victims of the IRA’s murderous campaign of terror, and today former Cabinet minister Norman Tebbit has led the condemnation of the deceased politician. Tebbit and his wife Margaret were both injured in the 1984 Brighton bombing orchestrated by the IRA, an attack which left the latter permanently disabled, and in response to McGuinness’s death he declared that the world is now a ‘sweeter and cleaner place,’ adding that the former Deputy First Minister should not be forgiven for his terrorist past because ‘forgiveness requires confession of sins and repentance… (and) there was none of that.’
It is indeed true that Martin McGuinness never once apologised for his senior involvement in the IRA, and one suspects that he takes to the grave a litany of dirty secrets about the many innocent people who were abducted, secretly murdered and buried in unknown locations – the so-called ‘disappeared.’ Indeed, the sister of an IRA victim has stated that ‘with him the truth has died,’ a sentiment which will be shared by many families tonight. It is yet another reminder of the wounds which still haunt Northern Ireland two decades after the end of the Troubles, as well as the fact that so many of the IRA’s victims have never seen true justice. The sacrifice of justice in the pursuit of peace is a bitter legacy of the Good Friday Agreement, and one can feel nothing but sympathy for those families who lost loved ones in such appalling circumstances.
Yet Martin McGuinness the terrorist leader did eventually become Martin McGuinness the peacemaker, and although he contributed to that same peace process which denied justice to so many, he also played an integral role in ensuring that no more families would have to go through the same pain in the future. He brought Sinn Fein to the negotiating table, the hardline Irish republican party which was essentially the political wing of the IRA under the stewardship of McGuinness’s close friend and colleague Gerry Adams, and he built the power-sharing agreement which eventually saw him govern alongside the man who had been his sworn enemy for most of his adult life, the firebrand Protestant cleric and unionist leader Ian Paisley.
McGuinness and Paisley didn’t just build a coherent political landscape, they sustained and empowered it by forging a close personal and professional relationship, leading them to be dubbed ‘the Chuckle Brothers’ for their seemingly effortless friendship. It is hard to find a more powerful image of reconciliation than the many photos of the IRA commander and the rabble-rousing reverend laughing together and enjoying each other’s company, proving that when violence and toxic rhetoric is set aside we really do have more in common than that which divides us. It is just a shame that it took so much bloodshed for the two sides of the Northern Ireland conflict to realise this.
As Northern Ireland’s political system teeters on the edge of collapse today, with the threat of a return to direct rule from Westminster looming, it is hard to deny that the province could do with a canny negotiator like Martin McGuinness to forge some kind of agreement between the unionists and the republicans. Although none of his latter actions could possibly absolve him completely from the horrific atrocities of his IRA past, the fact is that there may well have been no peace process without his leadership within the republican movement. Likewise, whilst he never said sorry for the evil that he committed, sanctioned and oversaw, his eventual disavowal of violence in the face of staunch opposition from within the IRA goes some way to make up for this absence of apologetic words. Martin McGuinness risked his career and his life for the Northern Irish peace process after decades as the region’s most notorious militant; let’s hope that his death does not signal the collapse of that increasingly fragile settlement.
Author: George Reeves