Veteran Cork republican criticises Martin McGuinness

‘We stayed true to traditional republicanism – he and cohorts went down Free State line’

Donal Varian: “We’re deeper now into partition . . . [and] further away from a united Ireland than we ever were.” Photograph: Daragh McSweeney/Provision

Donal Varian: “We’re deeper now into partition . . . [and] further away from a united Ireland than we ever were.” Photograph: Daragh McSweeney/Provision


Veteran Cork republican, Donal Varian has a view of Martin McGuinness that is at once both simple and complex – on the one hand he believes McGuinness betrayed the principles of republicanism in the 1986 split, but he bears no personal animosity or bitterness towards the Derry man.

“What I would say is the Lord have Mercy on him and I would extend my condolences to his family – he was a very well-established active volunteer and when he acted as a volunteer, he did it with credibility – I couldn’t criticise him other than the fact that he changed his ways.

“Now that was a matter for himself – that wouldn’t create any bitterness or animosity, but I would say he made his bed and he laid on it, I just didn’t share it with him and once he made that decision in 1986, you can’t expect anything else from him.”

Mr Varian, who is in his early 70s, said he knew Mr McGuinness “in a roundabout way”, but wouldn’t be drawn further on their relationship – although he did offer an interesting insight into Mr McGuinness’s role at the 1986 Ard Fheis when Sinn Féin voted to abandon abstentionism.

Mr McGuinness addressed delegates in favour of the move proposed by his friend, Gerry Adams, but it resulted in a split in the movement with an older generation led by Ruairí Ó Bradaigh and Dáithí Ó Connaill leaving to form Republican Sinn Féin of which Mr Varian has been a steadfast member.

Mr Varian said he wasn’t at the Mansion House as a Sinn Féin delegate, but he attended as “a member of the organisation” and for him, it was a pivotal movement for Irish republicanism which has set the movement back and made the prospect of Irish unity further than ever away.

“McGuinness went there as a member of Sinn Féin – the known fact was that, like many in the room, he would have been a volunteer, he would have dual membership and having dual membership, he abandoned the constitution and the General Army orders of the republican movement.

“He would have done his home work prior to the Ard Fheis and he had issued orders to volunteers to vote for the breaking up of the organisation by abandoning the abstentionist principle – we stayed true to traditional republicanism and he and his cohorts went down the Free State line.”

For Mr Varian, that was the ultimate betrayal by Mr McGuinness and everything that followed – the close relationship with Ian Paisley, the condemnation of attacks on security forces by former comrades and the shaking hands with Queen Elizabeth were inevitable consequences of that decision.

Mr Varian is of Huguenot stock and he proudly points out that two of the leading Young Irelanders in Cork in the 19th century were Issac and Ralph Varian and, taking a keen interest in history, he views Mr McGuinness and Mr Adams as following a path trod previously by Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.

“The Fine Gael party, the Fianna Fáil party, they are now part of the Free State system and the Free State system is there to administer and enforce British rule on the occupied area – Adams and McGuinness embraced that too and we, as a people, never voted for British rule in Ireland.”

Asked if Mr McGuinness was hypocritical in condemning attacks by dissident republicans on British soldiers and PSNI after being a key figure in the IRA when it was involved in attacks such as the La Mon and Enniskillen bombings, Mr Varian replies with a question but is unequivocal in his view.

“How can you carry out an act on the principle of republicanism and condemn someone else who comes after you and continues that struggle? His betrayal was to embrace the Free State and British rule and what he did after that was only a continuation of what they did in the Mansion House.”

“I remember a very elderly republican saying to me once, ‘we’ll be alright – McGuinness will save the day’ and I knew where he was coming from – he was coming from the armed struggle – but when McGuinness did what he did in relation to betraying the republican principles that elderly man cried.

“He cried like a child in front of me and he said “I never thought I’d see the day when McGuinness would betray us – he has done what Collins did’. No one ever saw that Collins would betray the principles of republicanism but you can see where it has got us, where we are today.

“We’re deeper now into partition than we ever were – they told us for example that the EU would be a stepping stone to unity the same way the Free State told us that it would be a stepping stone but we are further away from a united Ireland than we ever were.”