Ireland knew two Martin McGuinnesses: the man of war and the man of peace
Obituary: A shrewd, disciplined politician who sold ceasefire idea to the IRA he once led
Ireland came to know two Martin McGuinnesses. One was, for much of his life, a man of war and conflict, dedicated to fighting, as hard as he could, the British authorities, police, army and intelligence services.
The second McGuinness was a man of peace and reconciliation, who for a decade worked hard at building bridges with both London and unionism, from fighting the British state to negotiating with it, from being denounced by the Rev Ian Paisley and ascribing bigotry to him, to chuckling with him.
In his last term in politics his visible self-control in Stormont, and a widely-acknowledged courtesy, made DUP churlishness look all the worse.
The debate will go on for decades about whether he should receive more denunciation than appreciation, more blame than credit, and whether the deeds of the once violent republican should be excused in light of his last pacific decade.
A key moment signalling his transformation came when, standing on Stormont’s steps beside Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde and first minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson, he called dissidents “traitors to the island of Ireland” for continuing to bomb and shoot in opposition to an agreement backed by majorities North and South.
Of all the major gestures made to embed peace, only his negotiation with a Canadian general about IRA decommissioning came up to that Stormont moment.
Shaking hands with Queen Elizabeth by comparison was a courtesy long expected. Turning his back in public on the IRA he once led, and the methods he once commanded, had an unmatchable charge.
Footage of the moment shows Orde jolt towards him at the word “traitors”. Sinn Féin officials said later they had no idea he would say it.
The contradiction was that his later years as Sinn Féin’s northern leader, widely if reluctantly recognised as genuinely committed to a political path, were built on a time when his orders condemned many to brutal death.
Without that reputation McGuinness could not have successfully supported Gerry Adams in turning the bulk of their organisation away from violence. “Gerry is articulate, that’s his strength”, as a republican source put it in the early 1990s.
“But McGuinness would have to be on the road selling any ceasefire idea”, McGuinness had “the respect and confidence of the volunteers, he’s their man. Without Martin it could not be sold.”
Tony Blair, who as British prime minister invested heavily in the Adams/McGuinness team to deliver the framework for a “peace process”, once said he grew to like them both; “too much, probably”.
Several new acquaintances found McGuinness the more likeable of the two, more at ease. In the documentary Endgame it was the awkwardness of Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble he noted, at the moment the participants confirmed they had reached what would be known as the Good Friday Agreement. “We had to press a button and a red light would come on. David was uneasy and rather than push the button with his finger he hit it with a pencil.” McGuinness saw problems ahead.
He turned out to be a shrewd, disciplined politician, using other facets of a personality which earlier kept discipline, commanded loyalty, and dispensed death sentences. Sinn Féin in Stormont swallowed unionist insult and eventually began to take un-ignorable criticism for “rolling over” from their own community. McGuinness, with an ever more tight-lipped smile, fronted up an under-performing structure for longer than was arguably good for the party, or for him.
Sunshine in the gardens of 10 Downing Street and Chequers and late night chats with Taoiseach and prime minister must have come to seem more fantasy than memory.
Sharing the top Stormont job with the 81-year-old Paisley in 2007 turned out to be a high point politically. After a lifetime excoriating even a hint of compromise with moderate nationalism, Paisley made a bond of sorts with the former IRA leader, the two appearing before cameras together in high good humour. As McGuinness stood down, Eileen Paisley (Baroness Paisley) and son Ian Junior paid lavish tribute to his loyalty and kindness.
What both described as friendship outlasted Paisley’s standing in his church and party: the synchronised smiles had been too much for Paisley followers and even for some republicans loyal to Adams and McGuinness.
There was little public smiling with Paisley successor, the chillier Peter Robinson. But McGuinness made no capital from the pile-up of Robinson woes including Iris Robinson’s affair. A contemporary jest had it that Robinson felt safer with the former IRA-man at the end of his leadership than among his DUP colleagues.
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The last McGuinness lap was with Robinson’s successor Arlene Foster, who after a widely-disbelieved presentation of a united front, with no public indication that the Sinn Féin leader was uneasy, behaved as though heading a single party unionist government.
But at Christmas 2016, barely a year into her leadership, scandal engulfed a renewable energy scheme she had launched as trade minister. It coincided with the disclosure that McGuinness was seriously ill.
The previous winter, he had joked in a live broadcast that he had the energy of a 20-year-old. His much-reduced appearance as he announced his resignation, which automatically ended Arlene Foster’s term in office, brought shock, even tribute to his “contribution” from Dublin commentators, unreconciled to peacetime Sinn Féin, who had been aghast at his 2011 campaign for the presidency.
Unionist political figures for the most part remained un-won, at least in public. Over subsequent days some newspaper letter writers and phone-ins objected to what they termed whitewashing of his record as an IRA boss. But there was also widespread if sometimes reluctant recognition that he had used blood-stained credentials to a peaceable end.
He tended to explain joining the IRA as a logical outcome of being 18 when Protestant police baton-charged civil rights protesters in Catholic-majority, unionist-controlled Derry.
He had not been on the October 5th march himself: it was his father’s account that infuriated him, he said. Within a few years of petrol-bombing and throwing stones in Derry riots, he was “on the run” though in countless interviews he said that out of ignorance he initially joined the “wrong” IRA, the smaller, less militaristic and more left-wing Officials.
The second in a family of six boys and a girl, he was born in the Bogside, his father a foundry worker. In an early profile he described his beloved mother Peggy as a “staunch rather than strident republican” from Buncrana, Co Donegal. He was taught by nuns, then Christian Brothers, who “weren’t all bad, they weren’t all good”.
He learned A Nation Once Again, he said, but “the British and the unionists made me a republican, not the Christian Brothers”.
He liked to say that when flown to London in 1972 for brief and unproductive talks by the first direct rule Northern Secretary Willie Whitelaw (an indication of how unsighted British governments were in the early Troubles) he and Adams, a year older, by far the youngest of the six-strong IRA group, “were just children really”.
His rise to head a Derry “Provisional” brigade was rapid. British tabloids called him “The Butcher’s Boy” because he worked until the sudden introduction of internment, (detention without trial), on the bacon counter in a Catholic-owned local shop.
Photographers loved the Art Garfunkel-like fair curls and boyish face. In a rare early appearance on a platform he told a Bogside crowd “It doesn’t matter what Gerry Fitt says. It doesn’t matter what John Hume says. The IRA will fight until the British leave and we get our united Ireland.”
He married young, had four children with his wife Bernie, lived in the same terraced house and with local support kept his family out of media spotlights. He once said that only if it threatened his marriage would he stop being an active republican.
When his oldest child was 11 he also said he did not “encourage any political discussion with my children”. A local security source later observed with exasperation: “Totally clean. Doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink, doesn’t cheat on the wife. We’ve watched him like a hawk for years.”
He became a local republican hero, overseeing a bombing campaign that erased much of the Protestant-dominated commercial city centre. One veteran Troubles observer always marvelled at the late transformation into a public figure, and that it went deeper than tweed jackets instead of woolly jumpers. “Young Martin was a doer, not a talker”.
Derry Provos, as elsewhere, killed soldiers, police off-duty, and Catholics deemed to be police or army informants. Perhaps the most controversial in relation to McGuinness was Frank Hegarty, found shot on a border road in May 1986, eyes taped shut, who came back to Derry having fled to England. His mother Rose told a television programme in 1993 that McGuinness said Frank would be safe if he came home. McGuinness claimed he had said the opposite.
There were markedly fewer civilian casualties in bombings than in Belfast, fuelling the self-regarding republican legend that the Derry IRA was more clinical, less sectarian. They also used local man Patsy Gillespie, a canteen worker in the Fort George army base, as the first “human bomb”.
Armed men took him from his home, held his family hostage, ordered him to drive a van loaded with explosives to a border checkpoint and detonated the explosives while he was still in the driver’s seat.
The explosion, as gunmen opened fire from across the border, killed five soldiers. Kathleen Gillespie told journalist Mary Holland that only the zip of her husband’s cardigan had been recovered, and that it was the second time the IRA had forced him to drive a bomb.
“I said to them, you can’t be coming for us a second time?” The first time he had managed to give a warning before the explosion. The couple had talked then about him leaving Fort George but “this is Derry and a job is a job”.
At the funeral Bishop Eddie Daly preached perhaps his most eloquent denunciation. In language that might have been aimed particularly at McGuinness, whom Daly had once conceded was a “good father, a good husband, strong churchgoer, honest and upright”, he said the IRA had crossed a new threshold of evil. ‘Some may even still engage in the hypocrisy of coming to church but their lives and their works proclaim clearly that they follow Satan.”
This was October 1990, the year in which Secretary of State Peter Brooke authorised the secret contact with the IRA which helped advance the peace process. Security and republican sources agree that McGuinness at one point headed the northern IRA and for a time was chief of staff, while rarely off the Army Council. Command in any armed group surely confers responsibility for all of their violence.
McGuinness accounts over decades reduced his period of membership to a few years only. Unlike Adams he had served a jail sentence in Dublin for IRA membership, after arrest beside a car containing explosives and ammunition. Yet he got more credit for frankness than Adams, perhaps because he was less voluble.
He told the court and a very early interviewer that he was proud to be in the IRA, but came clean to the Bloody Sunday (Saville) inquiry as late as possible. Many others in Derry had already testified: to deny IRA membership to the tribunal at that stage would have punctured the whole Saville exercise, and exposed him as a liar.
Saville found, as David Cameron repeated in his Westminster apology for the army killings, that McGuinness as the local IRA commander on the day was “probably armed with a sub-machine gun” but did not engage in “any activity that provided any of the soldiers with any justification for opening fire.”
The response from McGuinness, by now deputy first minister in Stormont to the finding that he had been armed was a terse “No”. Saville, he said, had cleared everybody in the city. In 1994 in yet again denying membership he also pointed out that to do otherwise would be admitting a criminal offence.
In the run-up to ceasefire and eventual dumping of arms, the coldness behind the crinkling smiles could still emerge on cue. At the end of a bloody month in 1992 Adams and McGuinness confronted the RUC at the funeral of four IRA-men ambushed by undercover soldiers. “You’re standing there like a big child”, McGuinness taunted a police officer who said his aim was to prevent any paramilitary display: “You’re as bigoted and sectarian as ever youse were’.
When he became Sinn Féin’s first Stormont minister in 1999, nominated by Adams to the department of education, former teachers remembered him as unremarkable, pleasant, polite and disciplined. What McGuinness remembered most clearly was failing the 11-plus, a “trauma” no child should suffer. In the teeth of unionists already aghast at an IRA leader overseeing schools, he set out, unsuccessfully, to scrap the North’s selective system.
The time in education brought the contradictions of his life into focus. At half-dozen schools sixth-formers held placards denouncing him as an IRA killer and claiming he would force them to learn Irish.
The protests were plainly encouraged by unionist politicians and soon faded. A few principals were clearly surprised at their own lack of revulsion. “I’ve never seen anyone work a room like him,” marvelled a teacher in one of the most prestigious. His deployment by the party to Stormont, with Adams re-located to the Dáil, proved a good fit.
The pale eyes could still glare, as when he launched his bid for the presidency and a BBC Belfast interviewer pressed him on his past and IRA violence. He refused the interviewer concerned for months, tetchiness recurring after he had been confronted during the campaign by the son of an IRA victim.
As a gauge of how far the Republic had relegated IRA violence, and of how republicans handled their own responsibility, his presidential bid was indeterminate. The following year, in the softer-focus setting of a chat-show, McGuinness rebuked the RTÉ’s Miriam O’Callaghan for asking in various ways if the IRA had killed and died in vain.
Why, he responded, was the focus always on the IRA and not on those who had maintained “discrimination for generations”? O’Callaghan wondered whether violence did not brutalise everyone, and if he ever felt remorse in the early hours. “Would you ask that of Nelson Mandela?”, McGuinness said.
It is highly unlikely that there will ever be statues to Martin McGuinness. Some, especially the families of IRA victims, will always vehemently reject any suggestion that his transformation should merit praise or gratitude.
Others will appreciate the fact that finally, after all his years at war, he matured into an advocate of peace. He fought the bad fight, caused much heartbreak, ordered many killings and much destruction. He also fought with all the good that was in him to make a peace, which might not have been possible without him.
He is survived by his wife Bernie, children Grainne, Emmet, Fiachra, Fionnuala, and grandchildren.