A short version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on March 30 2017.
The world watched in horror as Khalid Masood drove a car into tourists and innocent bystanders at Westminster on March 24, 2017. At the funeral of Martin McGuinness on March 23 Gerry Adams described McGuinness, who died on March 21, as a “freedom fighter” rather than a terrorist. There has always been much talk by the Provisional IRA of “the armed struggle”. Unfortunately, freedom fighting and armed struggle is usually not in brutal reality about facing up to the army of the enemy but about killing defenceless women and children as Khalid Masood did. The Reverend Harold Good OBE also spoke at McGuinness’s funeral. “Our paths crossed many times and often he trod the path that came to our home and that is where you make friendship as you share your own fireside.”
Good by Name, Good by Nature
I first met the Reverend Harold Good (former President of the Methodist Union) in 1982 when I worked for Sir Arthur Armitage at the Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC). Harold was a distinguished and effective member of SSAC and impressed me as someone who was good by nature as well as by name. Thirty-five years later we still communicate and Harold is a regular reader of this column. The two most detailed accounts of the complex dealings that took the Northern Ireland peace process to the Good Friday Agreement are by former Irish Times correspondent Deaglán de Bréadún, (The Far Side of History) and Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff Jonathan Powell (Great Hatred, Little Room). Harold has always refused to discuss his role but both books mention him and it is a matter of recorded history that it was Harold who made the formal announcement that the Provisional IRA had decommissioned their arms, effectively saying the war was over.
Harold has strong credentials as a man of peace so I was somewhat surprised at his response when I asked him what he thought of Martin McGuinness standing for election as the president of the Republic of Ireland. “If elected he would be a circumspect, respectful and statesmanlike president.” He also said that he was proud to call McGuinness his friend. Edward Daly, the Bishop of Derry, once said of the teetotal, non-smoking McGuinness: “He is an exemplary man, honest and upright. My only quarrel is the legitimacy and morality of using violence for political purposes.”
Are these respected Christian churchmen talking about the same man who committed or organised many appalling atrocities? Some still regard him primarily as a key figure in the terrorist group that killed almost 1,800 people. McGuinness was the IRA’s chief of staff from 1979 to 1982 and ran the paramilitary movement when Lord Mountbatten and 18 British soldiers were killed on the same day. He was accused of approving proxy bombings, such as the murder of army cook Patsy Gillespie. Hostages were forced to drive car bombs, detonated before they could escape. This seems even worse than the suicide bombing tactics of the Tigers. Benedict Kiely depicts this vividly in his novel Proxopera.
“Terrorists” or “freedom fighters” often use their capacity to intimidate to engage in similar activities to organised crime. In this respect, the provisional IRA were similar to the Tamil Tigers. While they were purportedly striving to reunite the six counties of Northern Ireland with the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland, the Provisional IRA were also building up a criminal empire. While this might have begun as a means of financing the republican struggle, crime seemed to become an end in itself. The profits of crime might have been a reason for prolonging the conflict. The IRA established links with organized crime in the same areas of the Costa del Sol where many of Dublin’s top “ordinary” criminals, the “Murphia”, lived. The Murphia became the wholesale middlemen and women who supplied parts of the UK drugs markets after developing links with their British counterparts.
James Martin Pacelli McGuinness, the second of seven children, was born into a Catholic family in the Catholic Bogside area of Derry on May 23, 1950. he grew up in a city where the minority Protestants controlled the council, its housing and most of the jobs. After leaving a Christian Brothers’ technical college at 15, he was turned down for a job as a car mechanic because he was a Catholic, and became a butcher’s assistant. In 1968 he became a violent activist, after seeing images of Gerry Fitt, the Catholic MP for West Belfast, drenched in blood as the RUC baton-charged a civil rights march. The IRA was re-arming, and by the end of 1970 McGuinness had joined the newly formed Provisional IRA.
Within months he was deputy commander of the IRA’s Derry Brigade. More than 100 people died in political violence in Derry between 1971 and 1973, and McGuinness later justified his role in it by saying “a little boy from the Catholic Bogside was no more culpable than a little black boy from Soweto”.
At only 22, McGuinness was part of a seven-man delegation sent in July 1972 to a secret London meeting with Home Secretary William Whitelaw. He was Sinn Féin’s chief negotiator with John Major’s government in 1995 and with Tony Blair’s from 1997. As Jonathan Powell puts it: “He played a crucial role, risking his life in doing so, to bring about peace in Northern Ireland. And in those negotiations, he was always warm and friendly.” Powell believes that McGuinness’s role after the peace agreement was even more important: “Even more remarkably than making peace, McGuinness made peace work in Northern Ireland as deputy first minister, sharing power with his sworn enemy, the Unionist firebrand, Ian Paisley.” Kyle Paisley, son of the Reverend Iain Paisley, tweeted: “Look back with pleasure on the remarkable year he and my father… spent in office together and the great good they did together …Will never forget his ongoing care for my father in his ill health.”
I was a Catholic teenager in the 1960s surrounded by Protestants. Luckily for me I was in Gloucester rather than Derry. I did not feel discriminated against in any way. In fact, I felt a little bit exotic. At Sir Thomas Rich’s Grammar School I was excused attendance at prayers but never singled out as inferior. My teachers took great interest in cultivating my talents. If I had been in Derry how would I have reacted to the frustrations of being a second-class citizen with avenues of opportunity blocked off by prejudice and gerrymandering? Would I have taken to violence? I do not think that I would, but who am I to judge Martin McGuinness for doing so?
McGuinness’s only conviction for terrorist activity was for possession of weapons and explosives in the Republic of Ireland’s Special Criminal Court in 1973.
One former senior security source said: “As chief of staff of the organisation for a long period of time he was responsible for its strategic direction and the tempo of its operational activities, so he clearly bore a lot of responsibility for what happened on his watch.” Several well-placed security sources agree that Martin McGuinness would have had advanced knowledge of virtually every Provisional IRA attack in Derry after he was appointed chief of staff. “The bottom line is that nothing happened in Derry without Martin knowing about it …if he didn’t object, the attack went ahead. If he objected, it didn’t. It was that simple, he had a veto.”
Norman Tebbitt, whose wife was severely disabled by the Brighton bombing said: “”The world is now a sweeter and cleaner place. He was a coward. The reason he suddenly became a man of peace, was that he was desperately afraid that he was going to be arrested and charged with a number of murders.”
A former senior security source said that over the years McGuinness had transformed from one its most militant leaders to a restraining influence. There have been claims that he was in fact a spy working for the British.
My Facebook friend Ann Travers is in no mood to join in the praise for McGuinness. “It’s a shame that even when he knew he was gravely ill, Mr McGuinness couldn’t have taken the opportunity to reach out to those people — even by dictating letters — to help them get the information that they need. Now he’s brought it to the grave with him.”
Colin Parry whose 12-year-old son, Tim, was killed by an IRA bomb in Warrington in 1993 said he first met McGuinness in 2002 when he came to Warrington as Northern Ireland Minister for Education. “I don’t forgive Martin, I don’t forgive the IRA, neither does my wife and neither do my children,” he told the BBC. “Setting aside forgiveness, I found Martin McGuinness an easy man to talk to and a man I found sincere in his desire for peace and maintaining the Peace Process at any cost. “He deserves great credit for his most recent life.”
Mairia Cahill, who was raped by an IRA man, writes: “Forgive me for pointing out, when people say he moved away from his past, that he was still in the very recent past deploying some nimble footwork to make it look like he was somewhat sympathetic to the victim, while still covering for the IRA. Old habits die hard.” She recalls the terrifying look of cold anger in McGuinness’s eyes when she called him Art Garfunkel.
Marty Maggs and Sri Lanka
McGuinness made a less than helpful intervention in Sri Lankan affairs when he came here in 2006 and talked with LTTE leaders. McGuinness criticized the EU for banning the Tamil Tigers as a Terrorist Organization. He said, “it was a huge mistake for EU leaders to demonize the LTTE and the political leaders of the Tamil people.” He may have meant well, but he was over-optimistic in seeing parallels with the Irish situation. McGuinness told Sri Lanka: “The reality is that, just as in Ireland, there can be no military victory and that the only alternative to endless conflict is dialogue, negotiations and accommodation”. In Sri Lanka, there was a military victory over brutal terrorists who steadfastly refused to compromise or accommodate. If Sri Lanka had followed McGuinness’s advice, we would still be suffering from the atrocities of the LTTE. Iain Paisley Jr has often visited Sri Lanka and said in the House of Commons: “In many aspects, Sri Lanka has made more measurable gains post-conflict than Northern Ireland.”
The nationalists in Northern Ireland could say that their struggle had entered a new non-violent phase in which progress would be made towards a united Ireland by developing cross-border All-Ireland institutions and co-operating within the EU. Loyalists could claim that they had preserved their membership of the UK. The constitution of the Irish Republic was amended to give up its territorial claim to Northern Ireland. David Trimble lost the leadership of the UUP and mainstream parties like the UUP and John Hume’s SDLP lost influence to Paisley’s DUP and Gerry Adams’s Sinn Féin. A bizarre aspect was that the indefatigable naysayer Paisley became a jovial buddy of McGuinness, who also learnt to smile a lot. They became known as the Chuckle Brothers.
Many high-profile political figures attended the funeral. The Republic of Ireland’s Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Enda Kenny, Irish President Michael D Higgins, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Brokenshire and former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond, Alistair Campbell. John Hume, the former leader of the Social Democratic Labour Party whose health was broken by his efforts for peace and who is rarely seen in public these days was there. Folk singer Christy Moore sang the final song – the Time has Come – at the graveside.
Arlene Foster, leader of the Protestant Democratic Unionist Party was applauded in the Catholic church of St Columba and she shook hands with Sinn Féin leader Michelle O’Neill.
Bill Clinton was there and in his address said McGuinness “expanded the definition of ‘us’ and shrank the definition of ‘them’”.
Khalid Masood lived in a hate-filled world of them and us. Theresa May rejected rejected Masood’s world view but Brexit means the return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. A majority in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. Sinn Féin has been presented with an opportunity to campaign for a united Ireland within the EU. They may do so peacefully. There are others who are still ready to resort to violence.