Five claims that must be answered on McGuinness


The most obnoxious rhetorical strategy is that of whitewashing McGuinness by smearing Mandela, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE

AT LEAST one useful thing has emerged from the last week of debate on Martin McGuinness’s candidacy for the presidency. In all the discussions I’ve had in public and in private on the issue since I wrote about it last week, not one supporter of Martin McGuinness has denied that the IRA persistently committed war crimes over three decades. Given the heroic myth, repeated last week by McGuinness himself, that the “armed struggle” was about “battles on the streets of Derry”, this represents some kind of progress.

On the other hand, five propositions advanced by McGuinness’s defenders still remain to be dealt with:

1. Martin McGuinness is acceptable to the DUP in the North, so it is hypocritical to suggest that he should not be president.

This shows scant understanding of either the Belfast Agreement or the office of president. Martin McGuinness’s role as deputy first minister is a function of the unique system of government created by the Belfast Agreement. Under those arrangements, there is no free choice: Sinn Féin, as the largest nationalist party, gets to pick the deputy first minister, full stop. That’s what the deal is. Ian Paisley didn’t embrace McGuinness because he thinks he’s a wonderful chap.

The DUP had to accept Sinn Féin and its nominee because otherwise the DUP itself could not have entered government – there would be no government for it to enter.

The Irish presidency is not that kind of office. It is not part of the peace deal. Unlike the deputy first ministership, which is so party-determined that Sinn Féin could simply replace Martin McGuinness on a whim, the presidency is not party political. It’s the personal embodiment of collective values.

2. The past should be forgotten – what happened during the conflict is now irrelevant.

This would be a coherent position (though not one I accept) if it were applied consistently. But Sinn Féin doesn’t actually believe that past atrocities should be forgotten. It demands accountability for war crimes – except when they were committed by the IRA. Sinn Féin (rightly) demanded the establishment of the Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday. It is supporting (again rightly) the families of the victims of the British army’s murderous incursion into Ballymurphy in 1971. Gerry Adams has repeatedly demanded “that the British government faces up to its responsibilities on this issue; stop obstructing and prevaricating over the truth; and agree to set up an independent, international investigation into the events in Ballymurphy in August 1971”.

He is absolutely right – the siblings and children of innocent victims deserve nothing less than the truth, whoever perpetrated the atrocity.

3. Eamon de Valera was elected president and Martin McGuinness would be no different.

Where is the evidence that de Valera committed, ordered or sanctioned war crimes? His one outing as a military commander was during Easter 1916, at Boland’s Mills, where there was no fighting. The War of Independence was run by Michael Collins – Dev spent much of it in the US. During the Civil War, he was undoubtedly the political figurehead of the anti-Treaty side, but he had no control over the IRA.

In February 1923, he privately complained that he could only view the war “as through a wall of glass, powerless to intervene effectively”.

4. Martin McGuinness is like Nelson Mandela.

Of all the rhetorical strategies employed in this debate, the most obnoxious is that of whitewashing McGuinness by smearing Mandela. It has been contended that Mandela was responsible for atrocities, like the use of “necklacing” (the immolation of opponents with petrol-soaked tyres).

Necklacing was a disgusting and unforgivable abuse. There is not a shred of evidence that Mandela sanctioned the practice. He was in prison for almost the entire duration of the armed struggle against apartheid. He was appalled when his then wife Winnie supported necklacing – the issue was one of the reasons for the couple’s split. He personally berated Winnie for her (literally) inflammatory language.

5. It is preposterous to suggest, as I did last week that, as president, Martin McGuinness “could, in principle, be liable to arrest for war crimes under international law”.

As I write, it is still unclear whether the former US vice-president Dick Cheney will be able to travel to Canada to promote his new memoir last night.

The highly respected organisation Human Rights Watch has urged the Canadian government to bring criminal charges against Cheney because of his role in sanctioning the use of water-boarding against suspected terrorists. Canada’s second-largest party, the New Democrats, has supported calls for Cheney to be refused admission to the country. It has pointed out that Canada has specific legislation banning the entry of any senior official from a government that “engages or has engaged in terrorism, systematic or gross human rights violations, or genocide, a war crime or a crime against humanity”.

In much of the democratic world, civil society groups are demanding that international law on war crimes should actually be implemented.

I have never suggested that it is probable that Martin McGuinness as president would be prosecuted abroad. But a lot of people would be asking awkward questions.

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