Martin McGuinness: past and presidency


As a former member of Óglaigh na hÉireann makes a bid for Áras an Úachtaráin, ED MOLONEYexamines Martin McGuinness’s paramilitary past and how it has informed his political success and role in the peace process

‘FIXATION” IS A word that appears often when Martin McGuinness addresses the issue of whether he was a member of the IRA. It has figured three or four times in his language since Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister was unveiled as Sinn Féin’s candidate for the presidency, mostly in angry denunciations of the media or “West Brits” for daring to raise the question.

It also was his response to Edwin Glasgow QC when, in November 2003, the counsel for the Parachute Regiment at the Saville inquiry asked him when he had left the IRA, as he appeared to be suggesting he had from previous answers. “Here we go again,” replied McGuinness, “on another trawl through the Martin McGuinness fixation.”

If there is a fixation on his IRA membership, and in this regard Gerry Adams might wish to say he is not alone, it is because more than any other northern republican, McGuinness came to personify the IRA’s uncompromising commitment to armed struggle.

Few who were there can forget his electrifying speech in Dublin in November 1986 when Sinn Féin voted to drop abstentionism in Dáil Éireann. “I reject the notion,” he told a packed but silent Mansion House, “that entering Leinster House would mean an end to Sinn Féin’s unapologetic support for the right of Irish people to oppose in arms the British forces of occupation . . . Our position is clear and will never change. The war against British rule must continue until freedom is achieved.”

McGuinness’s speech probably won the debate that afternoon, made the resulting split a minor and manageable affair and set the IRA on the path to the peace process. That he was so effective was due not just to his stirring rhetoric but also to his special standing in the Provisional IRA.

It wasn’t just that the audience knew he was a skilled and determined northern commander of the IRA when he rose to his feet in the Mansion House but also that he was someone who had walked the IRA walk, and whose word could be trusted, unlike so many of his high-profile colleagues.

The Saville inquiry was able to conclude, for example, that McGuinness was “probably” armed with a Thompson sub-machine gun and “could not exclude the possibility” that he fired it. It is impossible to imagine any tribunal saying the same thing about Gerry Adams. So when McGuinness told the crowd in the Mansion House that the IRA’s war would continue, they were inclined to believe him in a way they wouldn’t have been if Adams had been speaking.

That image, honed by an ascetic lifestyle, an abhorrence of alcohol and a piercing blue-eyed stare, turned out to be one of the greatest assets of the peace process. The truth about the peace process is that in order to succeed, the IRA rank and file had to go down a road they ordinarily would have avoided. That task required constant reassurances from people they trusted that they were actually heading somewhere else.

Adams, who had never fired a shot in anger, was not the man for the job. But McGuinness was.

And so Adams and McGuinness became the Mutt and Jeff, the good cop/bad cop of the peace process. While Adams would smooth-talk John Hume, the British, Irish and American governments, and persuade them that his effort to end IRA violence was genuine, McGuinness’s task was to tell the IRA grassroots the very opposite, that the ceasefires were temporary and that armed struggle would be resumed if the goal of British withdrawal was not reached. “If Martin is for it, then so am I,” became the mantra in even the most diehard IRA redoubts of the North.

When the Troubles erupted in Derry in 1969, McGuinness was, like most of his contemporaries, a teenager more interested in playing football and chasing girls at the weekends. About the IRA, he once told an oral historian: “I had no real interest in it and it meant nothing to me.” If he had any political views they were, he said, “very pacifist and I agreed with at the time”.

But increasingly violent street clashes with British soldiers in the Bogside radicalised him as they did hundreds of his peers. He joined the Official IRA at first, the largest republican group in Derry, but when they failed to offer action he moved on to the then tiny Provisionals, whose numbers, he told the same researcher, struggled to reach double figures even by the time internment was introduced in August 1971.

But the mass arrest operation transformed its fortunes, and, as nationalist anger boiled over, the Derry Provos soon overtook the Officials in size and capacity for violence. Within a year, the Provisional IRA had killed nearly 30 soldiers, the commercial centre of Derry had been turned into a wasteland by IRA bombs, and McGuinness had been promoted to Derry commander, talent-spotted by Dáithí Ó Conaill, the IRA’s then adjutant general.

When the IRA negotiated a truce with the British in July 1972, McGuinness was chosen to join its Belfast leaders Gerry Adams and Ivor Bell on an IRA delegation flown to London for what turned out to be inconclusive talks with the then Northern Ireland secretary, William Whitelaw.

It was official recognition of his growing status and influence in the IRA, but McGuinness was already cultivating his image as a hardliner.

Earlier that year he had been interviewed by BBC reporter Tom Mangold and didn’t flinch when asked: “As the officer commanding the Derry part of the IRA Provisional operation, can you say whether the bombing is likely to stop in the near future?” He then appeared at a famous pre-truce press conference, hosted by chief of staff Seán Mac Stíofáin, looking every inch the determined, cold-eyed young gunman. Adams was not the first to employ McGuinness to soothe the rank and file.

The 1972 ceasefire would be the IRA’s high point. Within a month, enabled by Bloody Friday, the British invaded republican districts throughout the North and dismantled the no-go areas of the Bogside behind which McGuinness and his colleagues had been able to roam and plot unhindered. Like other IRA leaders from the area, he took refuge in Co Donegal.

The election of the Cosgrave coalition government in 1973 brought a sterner approach to the IRA on the southern side of the Border. McGuinness, arrested in a car carrying 113kg of explosives and almost 5,000 bullets, was convicted at the Special Criminal Court in Dublin, which sentenced him to six months. He told the court of his pride at being in the IRA: “We have fought against the killing of our people . . . I am a member of Óglaigh na hÉireann and very, very proud of it.”

He was rearrested in 1974, charged with IRA membership, convicted and once more imprisoned. An IRA comrade in Portlaoise jail remembers McGuinness, whose devotion to his religion was as intense as his politics, undressing in the cell to reveal a brown scapular around his neck. Catholic teaching says “whoever dies in this garment will not suffer everlasting fire”.

By the end of 1974, the IRA was on another ceasefire while its Belfast leaders, Gerry Adams, Brendan Hughes and Ivor Bell, were languishing in Long Kesh jail, outside Belfast. The ceasefire, which lasted for much of 1975, enervated the IRA, reducing it to a shadow of its former self and bringing it to the edge of defeat. The IRA’s approaching nemesis was the signal for a revolt by the Long Kesh Young Turks against the leadership of Billy McKee, Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and Dáithí Ó Conaill.

McGuinness was not directly part of the plot, according to contemporaries, but he did signal his support. When the rebels got out of jail and moved against the old leadership, McGuinness was part of the team. The rebels restructured the IRA and created a separate northern command, formalising the post-1969 reality, which was that the modern IRA was really a northern phenomenon.

Northern command became the IRA’s powerhouse, and in 1977 McGuinness was made the first northern commander with Adams as chief of staff and Bell as his deputy. The takeover of the IRA was complete but by February 1978 Adams was in jail, charged but later cleared of IRA membership in the wake of the La Mon hotel disaster, and McGuinness took his place. Only eight years after joining the IRA, he was its leader.

The Young Turks had promised that their ideas for new structures, allied with a left-wing political slant, would revive the IRA’s fortunes and enable it to fight a war of attrition to sap Britain’s will to stay in Northern Ireland. But with Adams now in jail, many IRA activists wondered whether McGuinness was the man to do the job.

On a sunny day in August 1979, all doubts were dispelled. Off the coast of Co Sligo, a remote-controlled IRA bomb claimed the lives of Lord Mountbatten and three of his boating party, while a few hours later in Warrenpoint, Co Down, 18 British paratroopers were slaughtered in a huge bomb ambush. The double IRA attack plunged the North into crisis and signalled the beginning of a new and bloody chapter in the Troubles.

But that day McGuinness’s name as a gifted and ruthless military leader was made, his commitment to armed struggle no longer in question.

His tenure as chief of staff was, however, a short one. Within two years the hunger strikes in Long Kesh propelled the Provisionals into electoral politics, and when McGuinness signalled his wish to stand for a seat in the 1982 Assembly election (which he won comfortably), his colleagues on the army council agreed but insisted that he give up the chief-of-staff job. He was, though, made chairman of the army council, the IRA’s point of diplomatic contact with government, a key post when the peace process got under way.

While the Provos were edging slowly into conventional politics, few in their ranks believed that winning elections was the way forward. McGuinness famously put this thought into words at the time: “We don’t believe that winning elections and winning any amount of votes will bring freedom. At the end of the day it will be the cutting edge of the IRA which will bring freedom.”

In 1985, the IRA and Col Muammar Gadafy of Libya made an extraordinary deal. Libya would supply enormous amounts of weapons and money if the IRA pledged to make Margaret Thatcher’s life unbearable. Soon boatloads of guns were sailing across the Mediterranean to the east coast of Ireland, and the IRA began making plans for a Tet-style offensive against Britain. To co-ordinate and implement the new plan, McGuinness was once again made northern commander.

McGuinness’s appointment signalled to the IRA base that the plan was serious. But the Libyan weapons began arriving in Ireland just as the still-secret peace process was born, as Gerry Adams, aided by Fr Alec Reid, reached out first to Charles Haughey and then to the British. In the midst of this secret diplomacy, the IRA’s military plans were shattered. The Eksund, the gun-running ship that was carrying the last and largest consignment of weapons, was intercepted, the element of surprise was lost and the Tet-style offensive was abandoned.

The loss of the Eksund effectively made the burgeoning peace process the only game in town for the IRA, and slowly it began to dominate. Just when McGuinness threw his cap into the peace-process ring is a matter of dispute. Some in the IRA say he was always Adams’s ally, others that he came to it only after the Eksund. That he played a crucial role in its development is, however, beyond dispute.

Under his leadership, northern command was allowed to vet every senior appointment in the IRA, and every planned operation. The former meant politically reliable personnel could be inserted into key positions, a vital tool in steering the IRA in desired directions. The latter led to internal accusations that northern command was manipulating IRA operations to undermine advocates of armed struggle and benefit the peace camp. But it also meant McGuinness and his closest colleagues were privy to some of the worst violence of the Troubles.

Among this was the Enniskillen bomb of 1987, which killed 11 Protestants attending a Remembrance Day service. The BBC journalist Peter Taylor reported in 2008 that his security sources had told him northern command, led by McGuinness, had authorised the bombing and that three days before it the Derry republican had been stopped by gardaí en route, Taylor said, to a briefing about the operation. But he added: “McGuinness told me that he had not been a member of northern command and he had no knowledge of Enniskillen.”

NORTHERN COMMAND ALSO authorised another notorious killing, that of the Derry man Patsy Gillespie, a canteen worker in a local British army barracks, in 1990. He was forced to drive a bomb-laden van to a checkpoint and was tied to the seat to ensure he couldn’t escape. The “human bomb” killed Gillespie and five British soldiers. When the tactic was repeated elsewhere, nationalist support for the IRA drained away, especially in Derry. McGuinness also denied any involvement, telling the BBC: “I wasn’t a member of the IRA when that happened.”

As the peace process accelerated, McGuinness’s role was twofold. His principal job was to assure the rank and file that there would be no sell-out, while within the leadership circle he worked to ensure the process moved forward and stayed on track.

When the Downing Street Declaration was unveiled in 1993, for example, his words were chosen to soothe an anxious IRA grassroots. The document would be “worthless”, he said, unless Britain’s private position was very different; anything short of a declaration of intent to withdraw by London would be “unacceptable” to the IRA. Furthermore, the rank and file would have the final say about a ceasefire; only an IRA convention could call one. But a few months later, McGuinness would table the proposal for the August 1994 ceasefire at an army-council meeting minus any mention of an IRA convention and without even a hint of withdrawal from the British.

It was the same with IRA decommissioning. To the rank and file he would give assurances not only that it would never happen but that unreasonable unionist and British insistence that it must happen would provide the excuse for the IRA to resume armed struggle. Yet it was McGuinness who carried the proposal for voluntary, secret decommissioning, the formula that eventually saw the IRA disarm completely, to George Mitchell.

In due course the IRA was taken so far down this road that there would be and could be no turning back. Without McGuinness it is very possible that this journey might not have happened at all or, at least, that it would have been a longer, bloodier and more difficult affair.

For reasons that defy understanding he, like Gerry Adams, has chosen denial rather than evasion when confronted with the question of his IRA membership. He told the Saville inquiry he had left the IRA in “the early part of the 1970s”, despite all the evidence to the contrary, when he simply could have refused to address the issue.

When the then minister for justice, Michael McDowell, accused him, in the wake of the Northern Bank robbery, of being a member of the seven-man army council, he did the same. “It’s not true,” he protested. “I reject it completely. What has alleged is totally and utterly false. I’m not a member of the IRA. I’m not a member of the IRA army council.”

His nomination as Sinn Féin’s candidate for the presidency has brought a rerun of the damaging, self-defeating denial strategy with an added pinch of irascibility at the media for their cheek. A cuter, cleverer strategy might have been to give an answer such as: “Well, if I did all you say I did and was all you say I was, then you should be thankful and shut up. For without that you would not now be living in an Ireland at peace.”

Sinn Féin statement

In response to an invitation from The Irish Timesto address points made in this article, Sinn Féin made the following statement.

“Martin McGuinness has been a republican activist all of his life and a republican leader for more than 30 years.

“He has already said he left the IRA in the 1970s but of course he engaged with them after that with a view to bringing about peace and he succeeded.

“Martin stands for office on his record as a politician, a peacemaker, a patriot and a republican.

“Some will judge him on his past, some will judge him on his present and some will judge him on what he promises to achieve in the future.

“He has been part of bringing peace to the north and across Ireland, part of bringing national reconciliation to the Six Counties.

He has stood against those who would drag us back to the past. Our country’s history is replete with journeys like Martin’s. De Valera, Aiken, Lemass, Collins, Cosgrave and MacBride, to name a few, all travelled historic journeys also.”