On the Death of Martin McGuinness

Posted by es328 at Mar 24, 2017 10:45 AM |
Dr Stephen Hopkins, from the School of History, Politics and International Relations, explores the life and times of controversial Irish republican leader, Martin McGuinness

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The death of key Irish republican leader, Martin McGuinness, aged 66, provoked a wave of media coverage in Britain and Ireland, much of it stressing the personal and political ‘journey’ he had undertaken, from ‘terrorist mastermind’ to ‘international statesman’ and ‘peacebuilder’. Should he be judged on the basis that ‘once a terrorist, always a terrorist’, or should his leading role in forging the ‘peace process’ be brought to the fore? Some obituaries chose to focus upon his record as a ruthless and determined leader of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), and his involvement in, and justification of horrendous acts of violence (many perpetrated against civilians) in pursuit of the expulsion of the British state from Northern Ireland. Others preferred to dwell upon his role in winding up the IRA’s campaign of ‘armed struggle’ during the 1990s, and committing the movement to the compromises enshrined in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement of 1998, and his subsequent position as Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive from 2007 until his resignation in January 2017. Whilst these interpretations of McGuinness’ journey were starkly at odds with each other, in terms of the moral judgments they implied, nevertheless they tended to share the belief that, over the course of his life, he had embraced profound change, both politically and personally.

However, my view is that this is not how McGuinness himself understood his life and times. My wager would be that he preferred to stress what he saw as the essential continuity between the different phases of his political life, and his ‘military’ and ‘political’ selves; he said on several occasions after he became a Minister that he remained a committed republican, wedded to the same political ideals as he had embraced in Derry in the late 1960s, and which led him to take up the gun and the bomb in the early 1970s. He continued to believe that the Provisional movement was the vehicle to advance those aims, even if the means to achieve them had altered significantly. But, critically, he did not renounce his past, or engage in a public self-criticism of his previous commitment to IRA violence. Although, in recent years he had been willing to state that some particular IRA ‘operations’ were unjustified or plain ‘wrong’, he maintained an implacable belief that the ‘armed struggle’ had, overall, been both necessary and legitimate in that period. Since the mid-1990s, it was no longer required to advance the movement’s objectives, which remained fundamentally unaltered. In their own minds, neither McGuinness nor his long-time ally, SF President Gerry Adams have wavered from this revolutionary conception of the Irish republican ‘struggle’.

The broadly positive evaluation of McGuinness offered by some of those who negotiated with him during the peace process, such as Tony Blair, Jonathon Powell and Alistair Campbell, has been painful and objectionable for many victims and relatives of those killed or injured in IRA atrocities. But, it is also true that for some Irish republicans, such an appreciation of McGuinness is also controversial and unpersuasive. For these ‘dissenters’, although the peace process may have delivered Ministerial posts for SF politicians, it was not a cause for celebration that McGuinness was administering continuing British rule in Belfast. Instead, he was accused of presiding over the effective defeat of the republican movement’s challenge to that rule, and of rewriting history to suggest that the IRA’s campaign had primarily been aimed at winning equality for Catholic nationalists within a reformed Northern Ireland, rather than the revolutionary overthrow of the state. In an illustration of the depth of bitterness that exists between erstwhile comrades, McGuinness termed those ex-Provisionals who have engaged in continuing, sporadic republican violence since 1998, as ‘traitors to Ireland’.

Unlike Gerry Adams, who has been a prolific author of autobiographical works, McGuinness was not minded to write his own memoirs. He also refused to co-operate with researchers attempting to write a biography of him, and said that his own story was not important, set against the wider story of the republican movement to which he gave his adult life. Nonetheless, what his passing has demonstrated is that the ‘memory struggles’ over the complex legacies of the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland will not produce a consensus any time soon. These efforts to contest the meaning of the violent conflict and its outcome (if, indeed, it can be said to be definitively over) are likely to endure for years to come, both in terms of the historical judgments to be made regarding responsibility and acknowledgement, and the role of emblematic individuals within this fraught environment.

Stephen Hopkins

School of History, Politics and International Relations

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