Martin McGuinness (1950–2017)

Former IRA hunger striker Tommy McKearney on the legacy of late Sinn Féin leader Martin McGuinness.

A young Martin McGuinness pictured at Free Derry Corner.

Much of the commentary surrounding the passing of Martin McGuinness has centered on the great man who made history.

Depending on the editorial line, the departed chieftain was portrayed as either a dangerous-but-reformed terrorist, an outstanding statesman, or someone who betrayed his republican principles. Much of the coverage has been not only facile but inaccurate.

Seen clearly, Martin McGuinness was a product of his environment. He reflected the history, strengths, and weaknesses of the political movement he belonged to — one that engaged, militarily and politically, in Ireland’s northern six counties over a turbulent half century.

Martin McGuinness was born into an Ireland partitioned a mere three decades earlier by the British Empire. In order to retain what was effectively a garrison on its neighboring island, governments in London turned a blind eye to the reactionary and undemocratic practices of its allies in Northern Ireland. Few places experienced the effects of this cynical arrangement more acutely than Derry, the city in which McGuinness grew up.

Local government in his hometown was run by the Unionist-controlled Londonderry Corporation, which secured majorities by shamelessly gerrymandering council wards. The corporation gave priority to unionist communities when allocating housing and public-sector employment, and flaunted its power with provocative pageantry.

The Belfast-based parliament in Stormont worsened this situation further still: pursuing a discriminatory agenda which deprived Derry of Northern Ireland’s second university, it steered investment away from what was an unemployment black hole and even refused to extend the cross-country dual carriageway to the city.

After decades of structural discrimination maintained by an authoritarian police state, Martin McGuinness was among those who stood up to the regime and demanded reform. The movement he joined employed campaign tactics inspired by American civil rights activists — and was met with similar repression.

It was in his hometown of Derry that the sectarian police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), violently attacked a peaceful civil rights march on October 5, 1968, injuring many demonstrators, including a number of elected representatives. A few months later, following a civil rights demonstration, an RUC riot squad invaded a private house and bludgeoned to death a Catholic man as he sat watching TV. This raw brutality set the tone for the state’s response to a peaceful campaign for democratic rights.

The Northern Irish government made it clear from the outset that it was determined to use its heavily armed police force to retain control rather than embark on a program of fundamental reform that might have averted much of the subsequent violence. In the crucially important year of 1969, RUC officers were responsible for eight of the sixteen deaths arising from the political conflict. None of the victims were armed, and one — a nine-year-old boy — was asleep in his bed when struck by a police bullet.

As so often happens when repression is substituted for democratic consent, the response was violent resistance. The state created the conditions for a confrontation that would last for over two decades. Like many young people of his generation in the north of Ireland, Martin McGuinness was moved by these circumstances to resist and joined the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

Historians and academics will long debate whether it would have been possible to avoid the years of bloodshed that afflicted the northern part of Ireland through the final twenty-five years of the twentieth century. Even many opponents of British state involvement in Northern Ireland have raised questions over the efficacy of the IRA campaign.

However, no substantive evidence exists to suggest that northern Irish unionism, a product of colonial expansion and an heir to the arrogance of British imperialism, would have succumbed to enlightenment. It remained stubborn in its refusal to grant reforms, even the kind achieved in recent years, for decades when concessions could have prevented escalations.

Moreover, and possibly more pertinent still, was the fact that the government in London refused to follow a path to peace. Although they spoke encouragingly about reform, consecutive governments insisted that this take place only within the parameters of the existing apparatus. When it came down to it, Britain supported the Orange regime and prevented progress with state force.

It cannot be said that the republican insurrection spared northern Irish society of detrimental effects. Violent conflict inevitably brings death and destruction. It leaves a difficult legacy for decades afterwards. The crucial question, though, is whether circumstances might have been created that would have allowed for a better, less bloody outcome. Even with hindsight it is difficult to see how this could have been achieved given the nature of the conditions in the region, the protagonists, and the toxic history of imperialism.

What can be said with some certainty, though, is that Martin McGuinness entertained no such ambivalence. Having witnessed the impact of the one-sided application of internment without trial in August 1971, followed months later by Derry’s Bloody Sunday, when British paratroopers shot dead fourteen civil rights marchers, he gave unconditional support to the IRA campaign.

He took a leading role in directing the organization’s activities and did so for several decades under conditions of extraordinary pressure. His significance within the IRA leadership became clear in July 1972, when he was part of a six-man delegation flown by the British government to London for negotiations with a senior cabinet minister.

Did Martin McGuinness’s actions make him a “terrorist”? The accusation is most regularly levelled by his political opponents, people who advocated for the old regime. It is rarely accompanied by a recognition of the oppressive nature of this state, the conditions that produced McGuinness’s politics.

It is worth reflecting at moments like these on how, in the global context, the term “terrorist” has become a badge to label wide ranges of people, of varying motivations, with whom the state is in conflict. It often has little to do with specific actions, or their potential explanations, and in many cases it has become an essential tool of propagandists attempting to obfuscate the underlying cause of a conflict.

McGuinness’s close party colleague, Gerry Adams, recognized this when he rejected the terrorist label during his tribute to his comrade. “Martin McGuinness never went to war,” he said, “the war came to him. It came to his streets, it came to his city, it came to his community.” A clear-headed analysis would show that it was brought there by British state forces.

Although not without its atrocious acts of violence, the armed campaign in which Martin McGuinness played a leading role was one distinguished by the lengths the IRA went to protect civilian life. This was an organization that developed a modus operandi of giving clear and timely warnings before detonating devices. In fact, approximately 20 percent of IRA casualties occurred due to malfunctioning timers intended to allow evacuations.

In terms of the great number of bombs planted by the IRA, the organization could claim a record on civilian casualty that conventional state forces using far more sophisticated technology would stand over. When considering McGuinness’s role in this particularly, it is noteworthy that there were even fewer civilian casualties due to IRA activity in Derry, the city over which he had operational control.

Efforts have been made to link McGuinness with specific regrettable events that occurred during the IRA campaign. Often, those highlighted are ones McGuinness condemned in strong terms. This is, nevertheless, something of a distraction. As a member of the IRA leadership, he embraced the concept of collective responsibility and accepted that he shared accountability with the organization for all of its actions. While this didn’t prevent him from publicly criticizing operations, he never dissociated himself from the IRA and on several occasions said that he was proud of his membership.

Due to his stature within the IRA, McGuinness’s support for the organization’s ceasefire in 1994 was crucial in persuading many Irish republicans to endorse the “new departure” from military to political strategy. The Irish and British establishment have often framed this decision as a Pauline conversion, spinning it as a shift from anti–state violence to a state-approved peace.

This narrative is one left-wingers should avoid. It overlooks the fact that Martin McGuinness was part of a leadership that took a conscious decision to change tactics. Tactical shifts are the prerogative of all political movements. To paraphrase von Clausewitz, politics for Sinn Féin was the continuation of the war by other means.

In the years following the IRA ceasefire, McGuinness played a leading role during Good Friday Agreement negotiations. Thereafter, he figured prominently in the bartering that brought about the decommissioning of weapons, support for a new police force, and the dissolution of the IRA. By doing so, he facilitated the convening of a local devolved administration in 2007, when to the astonishment of many, he became Ian Paisley’s deputy first minister, a position he held until his resignation earlier this year.

Bringing to an end an armed conflict that had reached a stalemate undoubtedly brought benefits not only to the IRA’s political wing, Sinn Féin, but also to the northern Irish people. It is beyond question that Martin McGuinness played a significant part in facilitating this transformation. Nevertheless — and contrary to the glowing commendations heaped upon him by such dubious characters as Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Theresa May — his role in the politics of the peace settlement deserves analysis.

When, earlier this year, Martin McGuinness resigned his position as Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, he didn’t just precipitate an end to devolved government in the region. His departure also highlighted many of his party’s failings. Ten years after entering an administrative arrangement that was virtually a coalition with the reactionary Democratic Unionist Party, it is difficult to identify any meaningful change to the underlying politics of the six counties.

As leader of Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness epitomized the centrist and oftentimes opportunistic policies of a party that has leaned on soundbites to mask its lack of program. In the north, Sinn Féin has abandoned pretenses to be socialist and failed to analyze the structures and class composition of the state.

Sinn Féin has pursued a contradictory twin-track approach of expanding its electoral base while simultaneously straining in an attempt to improve community relations. The aim was, it seemed, to make the political institutions work as if in a normal parliamentary democracy. McGuinness took the lead in this process and broke with prominent Irish republican traditions — attending ceremonies commemorating British Army war dead, publicly condemning dissenting republicans, and, most strikingly, shaking hands with Britain’s Queen Elizabeth.

But Sinn Féin’s politics in the north often appeared to draw on the influences of Bill Clinton’s Third Way: reorienting to the Catholic middle class from the party’s traditional working-class base. To achieve this, it was forced to adopt policies in keeping with bourgeois aspirations. This meant accepting the expansion of the private rented sector rather than insisting on a public housing program, tolerating anti-union legislation, promoting free-market initiatives, and, latterly, voicing strong support for the European Union.

Even in areas such as secular education, which has long been deemed within the remit of civic republicanism, the party backpedaled rather than confront the Catholic Church.

While this moderate strategy has reaped rewards for Sinn Féin in terms of political power, its Achilles heel was something that, in reality, should have been obvious to the party hierarchy: the intransigence of the unionist political class. Not even such a prolonged period of peace has produced a conciliatory attitude from political unionism. Consequently, despite their olive branches, debate in Northern Ireland has not moved beyond community division. Unfortunately, this must rank as a major failing of McGuinness’s leadership.

The United Kingdom itself is in the process of change as Scotland grows increasingly disenchanted with rule from London and the likely unsettling impact of withdrawing from the European Union makes the future of the United Kingdom uncertain. Even more dramatic is the fact that changing demographics within Northern Ireland mean that the Unionist majority is being steadily eroded and will most likely end within the next two decades.

While it is unwise to act as a prophet of doom, Northern Ireland has a poor record of handling fundamental change. As the Unionist majority declines, questions will inevitably arise as to what the future can hold for that community. At that point in time, the poverty of the McGuinness legacy in government will be most obvious. Standing on a nebulous manifesto of equality, respect, and integrity (in the United States this type of politics would be described as promoting motherhood and apple pie), his party offered little by way of security in their working lives or material conditions to a disoriented unionist community.

In many ways it would be unfortunate if this were to be how Martin McGuinness was remembered. He took a leading role in a generation of Irish republicans that courageously engaged with the forces of the British state and by doing so, irreversibly altered the political dynamic not only in the north of Ireland but across the entire island.

Nevertheless, as time goes by and the heroic memories of the most recent insurrection fade, it will be for his period as deputy first minister that he will be remembered. Martin McGuinness was a fighter against injustice, a man who contributed enormously to peace in Northern Ireland. But in the final analysis he failed to steer that peace in the direction of more fundamental change, and that reality will remain with us after his passing.