I never met Martin McGuinness, but I was certainly affected by him from an early age. His decisions, and those of his colleagues on the IRA Army Council, indelibly coloured my childhood. Belfast in the 1970s and ’80s was a grey, fortified city, compelling in many ways, but permanently charged with the unpredictable electricity of violence.
Our local news steadily chronicled the shattering of families, in city streets and down winding border lanes that were full of birdsong before the bullets rang out. There were regular, respectful interviews with pallid widows and dazed widowers, and funerals attended by red-eyed, snuffling children tugged into stiff, smart clothes to pay formal respects to the end of family life as they had known it. The murders arrived singly or in pairs, via gunshot or car bombs, occasionally bursting into more audacious atrocities that claimed many lives simultaneously. The names of the bigger ones — Claudy, La Mon, Enniskillen — stained the memory with a vivid horror. And the knowing strategist behind much of this killing was the young Martin McGuinness.
It was a pity for Northern Ireland that McGuinness failed his 11-plus. He was undoubtedly intelligent, and early academic success might have directed his talents towards something fruitful. Instead, those energies poured into the zealous dispensation of death for Irish republican ends. During the Troubles, McGuinness firmly believed that the cause of a united Ireland could be furthered by killing, and he was broad in his selection of targets.
One illustration: according to Liam Clarke and Kathryn Johnston’s book Martin McGuinness: From Guns To Government, ‘McGuinness personally supervised the Derry IRA’s first major success of 1987.’ That ‘success’ was for two IRA men first to murder a psychology student called Leslie Jarvis, who taught leatherwork to inmates in Magilligan prison and was therefore deemed a ‘legitimate target’. The killers then used the dead man as bait, switching his briefcase with one containing a bomb. When two policemen arrived on the scene and examined the case, they were both blown to smithereens. An IRA volunteer interviewed by the authors explained that ‘McGuinness was in the house opposite watching everything. He quite often liked to be close when things went off to watch and see… it was part of his strategy, his way of refining operations.’
I suppose it will be considered bad form to mention this kind of detail in the immediate aftermath of McGuinness’s death, when we are awash in eulogy. Sorry, chaps. The older McGuinness could certainly exude courtesy and joviality, and got along with the DUP with a warmth that is unimaginable from Gerry Adams, with his cold well of creepiness. But McGuinness saw Provisional IRA violence chiefly through the lens of strategy rather than humanity, and did so until the end of his days.
Consider his 2001 statement to the BBC about the 1987 IRA bomb that killed 11 people and injured 63 others during a Remembrance Day service in Enniskillen: ‘It was a total and absolute disaster. I felt absolutely gutted by it. I felt this would be damaging to our strategy in trying to build Sinn Fein as a political party.’ The gutting, it was clear, was because of the damage to Sinn Fein’s electoral prospects rather than the bodies strewn around the cenotaph.
In 2013, at a debate at the Oxford Union, McGuinness refused to condemn the 1990 IRA murder of Patsy Gillespie, a Catholic canteen worker and father of three who was strapped into a lorry loaded with IRA explosives and forced to drive it to a British Army checkpoint. There it was detonated remotely, killing Gillespie and five British soldiers. McGuinness’s parting political statement in January this year contained not a word of remorse for the casualties of IRA violence. If it had, I might even now be writing a different article.
Already, the mythologising is in full swing — Alastair Campbell: ‘the man I knew was a great guy’; Jon Snow: ‘an extraordinary life that culminated in great service’; Jeremy Corbyn: ‘a great family man’. His eulogisers seem to believe that there were two distinct McGuinnesses: wayward, gun-toting Martin, whose past is now often described as ‘controversial’, and good statesman Martin, whose astonishing achievements were lent piquancy and gravitas by the preceding carnage.
It is a feature of a particular type of educated Englishman — and this phenomenon is most noticeable in men — that he is rightly repelled by manifestations of extreme English nationalism, yet bizarrely soppy over its Irish equivalent. Once people such as Campbell and Jonathan Powell met McGuinness, and seemingly realised that he was not some howling Celtic monster but could talk agreeably about fly-fishing, cricket, football and poetry, they were quite entranced. His back-story, while officially reprehensible, clearly delivered a potent thrill once the immediate threat of attack was neutralised.
The reality is that both the IRA and the loyalist paramilitaries used appalling and sadistic violence as a form of conversation with each other and the British state. Instead of capital letters and exclamation marks, they deployed the corpses of the security forces and civilians. If these organisations were people, they would be psychopaths.
The violence stopped not because it was bad morality, but because it was becoming bad strategy. The intelligence services had penetrated the IRA’s inner circle to a degree that made operations increasingly difficult. Although it couldn’t be extinguished, neither could it win: the conflict was at stalemate, and too many members were in jail. A different plan for Irish unity emerged, one that involved Sinn Fein swallowing the SDLP and seeking to top the polls in both Northern Ireland and the Republic.
That might be a long game, but it has gone pretty well so far. Yet while it is clearly preferable to seek votes than to blow people up, I’m not sure why switching from violence to democracy should garner McGuinness more plaudits than those who never espoused violence at all. It is right to send condolences to his family, even though his ideology wrecked so many other families, but not to wallow in this weird orgy of sentimentality.
In death, his admirers will try to pin a Damascene conversion on him, but the enduring pain of those bereaved and injured by the IRA did not sit heavy on his conscience, nor did he really pretend that it did. In this respect at least, McGuinness was more honest than his eulogisers.