Martin McGuinness: Terrorist or Peacemaker?

The ex-IRA commander, who eventually played a key role in the Northern Irish peace process, is still dividing opinion.

Martin McGuinness speaks to reporters at a news conference during his time as the Sinn Fein chief negotiator on February 26, 1999 [Paul Hackett/Reuters]
Martin McGuinness speaks to reporters at a news conference during his time as the Sinn Fein chief negotiator on February 26, 1999 [Paul Hackett/Reuters]

In death, as in life, Martin McGuinness divided opinion. The Daily Mail called the one-time Northern Ireland deputy first minster who died this week “Britain’s Number One Terrorist”. The Irish Times – a newspaper not known for fawning portrayals of Irish republicanism – declared that McGuinness’s “place in Irish history is assured”.

The former provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) commander and Sinn Fein leader succumbed to a rare heart condition following a short illness.

But debates over McGuinness’ life and his legacy – in Britain, in Ireland and beyond – are likely to continue long after his contemporaries in London and Dublin have shuffled off the political stage.

A butcher’s assistant in Derry

Born into a large Catholic family in the nationalist Bogside area of Derry in 1950, McGuinness came of age in the fevered political climate of the late 1960s.

There were no soixante-huitards on the banks of the Foyle, but, inspired by events in Paris and elsewhere, a new generation were demanding civil rights.

Since its foundation in 1920, Northern Ireland had boasted a “Protestant parliament for a Protestant people”. The Catholic minority – at the time around a third of the population – were often discriminated against in jobs and housing.

The situation was arguably at its worst in Derry, where extreme gerrymandering ensured a Protestant minority retained political control over an overwhelmingly Catholic population.

In October 1968, McGuinness was an 18-year-old assistant in a Derry butcher’s shop when local police attacked civil rights marchers.

OPINION: Contending with the past in Northern Ireland

In later years, McGuinness adduced the incident – which he heard about from his father – in explaining his decision to join the growing republican movement a few months later.

On the streets, Northern Ireland was descending into sectarian chaos. Civil rights protests gave way to violence. Loyalists attacked Catholics. Security forces clashed with republicans.

Martin McGuinness addresses a republican crowd in Milltown Cemetery in April 1995 [Crispin Rodwell/Reuters]

‘Probably carrying a machine gun’

In January 1972, McGuinness was in Derry when British soldiers opened fire on civilians. Fourteen people were killed. The subsequent Saville inquiry found that the then second-in-command of the local IRA was “probably” carrying a sub-machine gun on the day of the massacre.

The gun has gone from Northern Ireland's politics, but whether the next generation of political leaders - on both sides of the Irish Sea - have the ability, and the willingness, to reach the kind of compromises Martin McGuinness made remains to be seen.

McGuinness quickly rose through the ranks of the IRA. He was often evasive about his role – demurring when asked directly in 2015 if he had killed British soldiers – and even claimed to have left the IRA in 1974.

But in reality, the young Derryman with the curly Art Garfunkel mop was an integral figure during a period when the IRA were responsible for the deaths of around a third of the more than 3,000 people killed during Northern Ireland’s “Troubles”.

At the same time, however, McGuinness was also involved in various stalled ceasefire initiatives.

McGuinness was part of an IRA delegation that met Secretary of State Willie Whitelaw in London in 1972. The following year, he met MI6 man Michael Oatley, beginning a relationship that would last until the secret serviceman’s retirement nearly two decades later. By the time a peace agreement was finally signed, in 1998, McGuinness was Sinn Fein’s lead negotiator.

No wonder McGuinness’s death has cast such an ambivalent shadow. Here was a man of violence who became feted, by many, as a peacemaker. A man who led an armed campaign for a united Ireland for three decades, ended his career at the apex of a devolved government within the UK, but never felt that he had conceded his republican beliefs.

McGuinness played a key role in the peace process. That a serious split in the notoriously fissiparous republican movement was avoided in late 1990s owed much to his reputation as hard man in IRA circles.

McGuinness spent months selling the peace deal to at times reluctant rank-and-file. Later, as Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, McGuinness decried dissident republicans as “traitors to the island of Ireland”, a remarkable comment from a one-time IRA chief.

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II shaking hands with former Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness on her arrival at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, Northern Ireland in June 2012 [Paul Faith/EPA]

McGuinness will doubtless be remembered for the once unthinkable bipartisan moments. In 2007, he entered into a power-sharing government with his former nemesis, unionist firebrand Ian Paisley. The two struck up such rapport that they became known as the “Chuckle Brothers”.

McGuinness’s meetings with the Queen appeared genuinely warm, reflecting a man often said to be charismatic and engaging in private, but who also displayed a military ruthlessness.

Master of strategy

For IRA victims, and others, McGuinness will never escape the shadow of the gunman. Former IRA leader, Cathal Goulding, who rejected violence in the 1970s, famously quipped that McGuinness and Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams were “right, but too late” in laying down their arms.

McGuinness’s death leaves a palpable gap in Northern Irish politics. A master of strategy, he used his resignation in January to trigger the collapse of the devolved legislature at Stormont amid the “cash for ash” scandal.

The subsequent election saw Sinn Fein’s vote rise sharply under new leader, 40-year-old Michelle O’Neill. For the first time in its history, Northern Ireland no longer has a unionist majority.

Northern Ireland’s future remains uncertain. There is little sign of the power-sharing government being reinstated anytime soon. Brexit raises the spectre of a hard Irish border, and with its fears of economic disruption renewed dissident republican attacks.

Those who fought the Northern Irish war – and the peace – are nearing the end. The gun has gone from Northern Ireland’s politics, but whether the next generation of political leaders – on both sides of the Irish Sea – have the ability, and the willingness, to reach the kind of compromises Martin McGuinness made remains to be seen.

Northern Ireland’s first minister Ian Paisley, left, and deputy first minister Martin McGuinness smiling after being sworn in at a ceremony at Stormont, Belfast in May 2007 [Paul Faith/Reuters]

Peter Geoghegan is an Irish writer and broadcaster based in Glasgow. His most recent book is The People’s Referendum: Why Scotland Will Never Be the Same Again.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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