Martin McGuinness: A turbulent life

In a province as divided as Northern Ireland, it is unsurprising that many public figures continue to either illicit strong support or provoke such hostility in a polemical society. A mutual distrust of political figures from either the Unionist or Nationalist communities lingers still, almost twenty years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, and social sectarianism remains rife among Northern Ireland’s cities.

It is within this context that we as a nation view Martin McGuinness, former Deputy First Minister of the Northern Irish Assembly at Stormont as well as the former Chief of Staff for the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA). For almost ten years, McGuinness served as the Deputy First Minister, a Sinn Féin politician representing Nationalists’ interests in the devolved Assembly, until his resignation in January 2017. After a period of ill-health caused by a rare heart condition, McGuinness passed away in the early hours of 21 March 2017 in his hometown of Derry, aged 66.

Northern Ireland is a much more peaceful, prosperous and tolerant region than even ten years ago, and its stability is very much a testament to the effort put in by McGuinness to achieve this. However, it is important to remember that McGuinness’s actions and directives caused the deaths of dozens of people during the height of the Northern Ireland Troubles, with the legacy of these actions still felt today.

Born into a staunchly Catholic household in the Bogside region of Derry, McGuinness was the second of seven children born to William and Peggy McGuinness. One of the most deprived regions of the United Kingdom, the Bogside has been a strong base of Republicanism in Northern Ireland since the late 1960s; however, as McGuinness noted, there was almost no presence during his childhood. His parents were not Republicans, as he noted in an interview with the Irish Times; instead, he was raised in a nationalist, Catholic household, with the emphasis firmly on Catholicism. Indeed, many commented that Martin was the only one of his family to embrace the Republican ideals.

Having failed his 11+ exam, he attended the local Christian Brothers school, leaving at the age of fifteen in favour of a job. It was then that he experienced sectarianism in the workplace for the first time, turned away from an apprentice position because of his religious views and the associated community.

17392959_1488333641200297_2095108003_nGrowing up in an increasingly tense and violent period, where Unionist versus Nationalist seemed to be the only mindset within many of Northern Ireland’s cities, it is unsurprising that McGuinness chose to join the IRA in 1970. What is surprising, perhaps, is how fast he moved up the chain of command. In his statement to the Saville Inquiry in 2001, McGuinness admitted for the first time that he had been the second-in-command of IRA operations within the city of Derry. This was a huge statement – as well as confirming his high rank, it also simply confirmed that he was in the IRA, something he had previously denied.

Whilst McGuinness claimed to have left the IRA in 1974, shortly after his release from prison in the Republic of Ireland, this has been strongly contested. Instead it is widely believed that in the period 1978 – 1982 McGuinness was the Chief of Staff for the Northern Command of the IRA: if this is true, then no operation occurred without his knowledge within this period. Though there is no evidence to ascertain for definite either way, it is very likely that McGuinness spent this period in a high command position within the IRA.

Though McGuinness was one of several leading Republicans who entered negotiations with the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Willie Whitelaw, it is clear he remained a staunch believer in the armed struggle. Indeed, this is the case up until the mid-1980s. In 1986, he stated, “we [the IRA] don’t believe that winning elections and any amount of votes will bring freedom in Ireland. At the end of the day, it will be the cutting edge of the IRA that will bring freedom.”

Somewhere between 1986 and 1990, McGuinness’s priorities changed, and he played an important role in ending the “armalite-and-ballot-box” approach in favour of the ballot box. It is likely he did this initially for self-preservation; the political tide in Northern Ireland was wearily turning away from violence towards peace. However, it cannot be denied that he became a firm advocate of the peace process. He was fully involved in secret negotiations with the UK Government in 1990, shortly after the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Brookes, stated that Britain had no “selfish strategic or economic interest” in Northern Ireland.

John Major, in a recent assessment of McGuinness’s legacy, cited a note he received in the early 1990s, which stated, “the conflict is over. We need your help bringing it to an end.” Major believes that this note was penned by McGuinness. Though, as with everything to do with secret negotiations and the IRA, we cannot confirm that this was McGuinness’s note, although it seems possible given his later exuberance for the peace process. Whereas Adams was stoic and all business, McGuinness was personable and keen to talk about anything – particularly fishing. At some point – and only McGuinness knows exactly when – his interest in achieving a peaceful settlement for Northern Ireland became genuine, and he became a driving force for this goal.

17439919_1488333671200294_486290228_nIn addition to the Good Friday Agreement, this is evident in his role in the implementation of the St Andrews Agreement of 2006, as well as the negotiations for the Agreement itself. This new Agreement facilitated the return of the Northern Ireland Assembly after it was suspended in 2002 amidst claims of an IRA “spy-ring” within Stormont. McGuinness was a driving force in the implementation of the St Andrews Agreement, becoming the most senior Republican within Northern Ireland when appointed Deputy First Minister. His affable nature helped make the transition easy; on a visit to the United States in December 2007, McGuinness commented that “up until the 26 March, Ian Paisley and I never had a conversation about anything — not even about the weather — and now we have worked very closely together over the last seven months and there’s been no angry words between us…This shows we are set for a new course.”

And indeed they were. McGuinness remained the Deputy First Minister through three elections, and the eventual dissolution of the Assembly in January 2017 was not due to sectarian matters. Instead, it revolved around the RHI scandal, which indicates perhaps how far Northern Ireland has come. Throughout this decade, McGuinness has continually supported the peace process and reconciliation, for example when he shook the Queen’s hand in 2012. It can also be seen through his interactions with Colin Parry, the father of Tim Parry, who was killed in the Warrington bombing of 1993.

For someone with a history as complex as Martin McGuinness it is almost impossible to make a balanced judgement. Does his commitment and importance in the peace process excuse his role in the vicious and often unexplained attacks committed by the IRA in the 1970s and 1980s? Absolutely not. But without McGuinness, it is fair to say that the peace process would have taken a very different shape and timeframe, and would not have had one of its most vocal advocates.

DUP MLA Ian Paisley Jr. commented early on the morning of 21 March 2017, “it’s not how you start your life that’s important, it’s how you finish your life.” Which, perhaps, is how McGuinness would have preferred to assess his career development across four decades.


Written by Victoria Bettney 



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