Martin McGuinness: a visual timeline of a journey from war to peace
Author Henry McDonald assesses the life of the IRA leader turned peacemaker
First and Deputy First Ministers Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness with Ireland’s cricket captain Trent Johnston and bowler Kyle McCallen in Stormont in honour of their exploits at the Cricket World Cup. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Pacemaker
In a book dominated by photographs and only 20,000-plus words of text to accompany the images there are admittedly several crucial pictures missing from this photo-biography of Martin McGuinness. These are the ones that the public were never meant to see – if indeed any of them ever existed. They relate to any possible photographic evidence of the former IRA chief of staff’s clandestine meetings with senior figures in British Intelligence.
Who knows if one of the “spooks” who held irregular but critically important secret encounters with McGuinness as part of the famous “Derry link” between senior republicans like him, business/community figures in the city and MI6 operatives ever covertly photographed those discussions for posterity? Or did those in the British security services who were probably monitoring these negotiations ever take pictures of any of the key players moving to and fro from a series of safe houses McGuinness and the Provisionals’ leadership would have felt secure enough to speak in?
It would be fascinating to discover if the spooks or the “sneaky beaks” ever captured on camera say the “Mountain Climber” aka Michael Oatley as the latter slipped into republican Derry to hold talks with McGuinness. And it would be intriguing if in the future any such pictures emerged from the archives of MI6 that shed further illumination onto this fascinating nexus between the future Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, Derry go-betweens such as Brendan Duddy or Denis Bradley and MI6. This was a nexus that initially produced a de facto ceasefire in the city where the Troubles first started and which, in reality, was a far more significant development in the peace process than the “window dressing” talks between John Hume and Gerry Adams during this same period from the late 1980s to the early ’90s.
In the absence of any such pictorial material my colleagues at Blackstaff Press and myself were still left with a voluminous bank of photographs spanning McGuinness’ “journey” from street fighting militant to Derry Provisional IRA commander, eventually PIRA chief of staff and then senior Irish republican negotiator with the British, Irish and American governments, who eventually helped produce two ceasefires, the latter more lasting after July 1997 and the transformation of politics on this island. Yes, that word “journey” is often so overused and hackneyed when writers deploy it about political events, especially in writing the first draft of history. There is, however, no other word more apposite for describing the remarkable trajectory of McGuinness’ life from butcher’s apprentice to Deputy First Minister of a state he once dedicated a large part of his life to destroy.
On this journey it should never be forgotten that the PIRA – which he headed up for a while as its overall commander in the 1980s and of whose senior command he had been a member for decades – killed almost 2,000 people, maimed thousands more and psychologically scarred a generation with a campaign that never achieved its war aims.
If that one word “journey” can sum up McGuinness’s career then another word – futility – is the most appropriate to describe the IRA’s “armed struggle” that, as any objective observer with a grasp of history will accept, had retarded the process towards Irish unity and left a society in the North deeply divided and profoundly traumatised by that violence.
This does not in any way excise from history either the reactionary role of the British state in episodes from internment or Bloody Sunday or excuse the maniacal sectarian savagery of loyalist paramilitaries. Nonetheless McGuinness and the IRA did not achieve their war aims as set out at press conferences like the one he co-hosted with founders of the Provisionals like Daithi O’Connaill in Derry in June 1972. The campaign he helped propagate and excuse in the end failed.
When you embark on a project where the subject is such a controversial and divisive figure as Martin McGuinness you know that you are doing the right thing when you are attacked by all sides. As news seeped out that I was providing the written, historical context to this amazing collection compiled by Blackstaff there was a barrage of abuse from various quarters. One dissident republican for whom I have a lot of respect (he is not a fan of continued “armed struggle”, regarding the current campaign by the New IRA etc as utterly counter-productive) admonished me for working on this photo-biography. He used a derogatory word about McGuinness which I would not produce in reportage let alone among polite company and expressed grave disappointment that I was in any way painting the late Sinn Féin leader in any positive light.
On the other side of the republican house there are disgruntled voices expressing outrage that someone who dared question many of the foundation myths of the Provisionals in his journalism should be “allowed” to write a biography of their hero. And there is a third strain of opinion, mainly though not exclusively from the unionist community, which expresses concern that over-focusing on McGuinness the peacemaker airbrushes out the bloody adventure he and his comrades embarked upon, and eclipses the stories of his/their many victims.
Having faced criticism from these three different, opposing corners, it has become apparent that this story of a life had to be told as objectively as possible and in all its complexity.
A visual timeline
What the staff at Blackstaff Press and Colourpoint have achieved in the collation and arrangement of these photographs is to give the reader, perhaps of the first time, a visual timeline of McGuinness’ evolution from man of war to man of peace.
The arc of this pictorial narrative takes you into the starkness of black and white photography from the early ’70s including harrowing images from the streets of Derry on Bloody Sunday including the rows of coffins of 11 of the civilian dead laid out together inside St Mary’s Church in the Creggan area.
The monochrome pictures also include the funerals of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands and that of Derry INLA activist Patsy O’Hara during the death fast in the Maze prison that grim spring and summer of 1981. The book does not shy away from the horror of the conflict and pages 62-63 are particularly disturbing. The first image on 62 shows McGuinness gripping onto a grave inside Belfast’s Milltown Cemetery in 1988 during the funerals of the three IRA members the SAS shot dead in Gibraltar. McGuinness looks on in shock as an older man tends to one of the victims of loyalist assassin Michael Stone who has just thrown grenades and fired on mourners. Across the page is the tortured, bloodied body of Corporal Derek Howes who the following Saturday made the fatal mistake of driving into the cortege of the funeral of IRA man Caoimhim Mac Bradaigh – one of the three killed by Stone during his one-man attack a few days earlier. Standing over Corporal Howes’ corpse is Fr Alec Reid, administering the last rites to the soldier. The priest was Gerry Adams’ confessor and was to play a key role in helping Adams and McGuinness guide the republican movement out of the armed struggle cul de sac.
One of the most poignant pictures comes right at the end of the book on the day of McGuinness’ own funeral
Barring a few gruesome exceptions (the destruction of Omagh town centre in the 1998 Real IRA bomb massacre splashed across pages 100-101 comes to mind) most of the colour photography reflects the road to ceasefires, all-party talks, stalled agreements and eventually powersharing with mortal enemies that carried McGuinness forward. While there may be no images of swords being beaten into ploughshares there are images that show how the cricket bat replaces Ian Paisley’s sledgehammer (the one he once threatened to smash Sinn Féin with in the ’80s) and the baseball bat, the preferred weapon of choice for the IRA’s “punishment beating” squads. Both McGuinness and Paisley knock cricket bats together on page 117 as the “Chuckle Brothers” have a chortle with members of the Irish international cricket team on of all days July 12th, 2007! This image not only summed up the warmth of the pair’s relationship but also was a chance to remind the world that McGuinness had been a long-time cricket fan, a sport not normally associated with Irish republicans!
One of the most poignant pictures comes right at the end of the book on the day of McGuinness’ own funeral on March 21st, 20017. It is of former US president Bill Clinton gently touching McGuinness’s Tricolour-draped coffin inside St Columba’s church in Derry. Clinton laid his hand on the flag to say goodbye to a friend whom he had done so much to bring in from the political cold in the early years of his presidency and whose decision to do so clearly paid dividends in terms of bringing about the 1994 IRA ceasefire just two years after he was elected to the White House. That final farewell touch succinctly sums up the journey for a final time. The American president who invested so much time and effort in the Irish peace process provided a visual gesture that was an appropriate stop point to an incredible career. Like him or loathe him, McGuinness’s story as captured in this collection of photographs was an historically unique one that only the upheavals of the Troubles could have produced.
Meantime, if Michael Oakley or any of his retired MI6 colleagues, or even indeed the Special Branch operatives who I know for a fact were at one stage spying on the Derry link, happen to find a few old photographs tucked away in a drawer somewhere gathering dust, please do pop them onto your smartphone or email me at email@example.com and I can guarantee that their source’s anonymity will be protected.
- Henry McDonald is author of Martin McGuinness: A Life Remembered, published by Blackstaff Press. He is Ireland Correspondent for The Guardian and The Observer but his analysis both this book and this article are solely his own