Ian Acheson

Is a poetry contest really the way to remember Martin McGuinness?

Is a poetry contest really the way to remember Martin McGuinness?
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‘What rhymes with Patsy Gillespie?’ That was the starkest reaction on social media to the recent announcement of the launch of a poetry prize dedicated to Derry IRA commander and former deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness.

Mr Gillespie, 42, was a cook at the Fort George Army base in Derry city. In October 1990, republican terrorists abducted him from his home in front of his family, taking them hostage. They chained him to the driver’s seat of a van full of explosives and forced him to drive into a permanent army checkpoint on the border where they detonated the 1,200lb bomb, killing him and five soldiers. Gillespie was identified only by a piece of his flesh stuck to a zip. 

It’s hard to find any poetry in such sadistic barbarism. Scorching prose had to suffice. And the then Bishop of Derry, Dr Edward Daly supplied it. He said the IRA were the ‘contradiction of Christianity…their works proclaim that they clearly follow Satan’. The attack was almost certainly sanctioned by Martin McGuinness.

The Martin McGuinness Peace Foundation asks for verses that ‘reflects Martin’s legacy or his vision for a new Ireland.’ It offers prizes for adults and children for their poetic contribution to the cult of forgetting.

There are plenty of people who will argue that, in later life, McGuinness more than redeemed his blood-soaked early years. He was – and remains – an iconic figure in the republican heartlands of Northern Ireland and further afield. It is certainly the case that the IRA would not have swapped balaclavas for seats in a UK devolved government without his considerable powers of persuasion. 

I still remember him standing at the steps of Northern Ireland’s executive government in 2009, condemning the dissident republicans who murdered a police officer as ‘traitors to the island of Ireland.’ A faltering peace process in Northern Ireland was only saved from disintegration by the strange but clearly genuine friendship forged with Ian Paisley. The well-exercised dogs in the streets in Northern Ireland know that hope and history do indeed sometimes rhyme.

But the balance of harm he caused was never repaid in life, nor could it ever be this side of his IRA ‘volunteer’ grave. Nearly half of all the dead of Northern Ireland’s Troubles were inflicted by the Provos who murdered more Catholics than any of the other combatants. 

In Derry, McGuinness as the senior IRA commander had the final say over who lived or died. He reportedly liked to be close to where IRA attacks were carried out in Derry, sometimes personally taking charge. He had every opportunity in life to assist countless people who had their lives torn asunder by actions he sanctioned in finding a measure of peace by revealing information about who killed their loved ones. He failed to do so on countless occasions despite the accepted reality that, for all his protestations, he was on the IRA's Army council until its ceasefire in 1994.

How could you commit such moral insanity to a few verses of poetry? How could any lyrical ‘New Ireland’ be built on such ground? I’m not sure my effort below would get past the competition judges but it has a resonance. It was written about the funeral of a family connection of mine, PC John Hallawell who was a police officer in Derry in 1983. He was gunned down by three IRA terrorists as he left a meeting to arrange a cross-community disco for kids.

Death of a policeman

Shut blinds conceal

A coalition of wailing.

The dead energy used

To put a broken face on straight.

The journey from Bungalow to Kirk

Is a hideous reversal

Of their wedding day.

This time,

She walks down that aisle alone,

Through a stifled congregation

Of everyone that knew them,

Struck again and again

With the ragged sympathy

On each neighbour's face -

Making it real like every nail In the decorated coffin

That left no space for her,

At the very altar

Where she once said to him

In reverent wonder:

'I do.'