Archive for March 21, 2017

There was only ever one Martin McGuinness

Picture courtesy of rte.ie

In the rush to eulogise Martin McGuinness on his passing, it is fascinating to observe the discomfort as Ireland’s media outlets wrestle with how to remember a man they despised for the most part, but who ultimately brought peace to our island.

The laziest, yet most common knee-jerk reaction is to suggest that there were two Martin McGuinnesses – the post-ceasefire peacemaker and politician on one side, and the IRA leader on the other.

It is the conclusion drawn by those who still, almost 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement, cannot even begin to understand why a young man like McGuinness would become a high-ranking IRA man and wage a guerrilla war against the British for so long and in such a bloody fashion.

It says more about the writer than it does about their subject.

It says that they have never really addressed the root cause of violent republicanism – that is, the state violence perpetrated on a minority whose human rights were constantly suspended, ignored and denied.

It says that they haven’t looked into the Bogside – or, for that matter, The Diamond – and tried to understand the political forces that spilt the community in Derry and turned them against one another.

It says that what they want is a clinical, road-to-Damascus-style conversion where the savage learns to speak and thus realises his potential, becoming acceptable to polite society in the process.

Because in Ireland, that makes us feel better about how we abandoned our brothers and sisters in the North – Catholic and Protestant, unionist and Nationalist – for so long.

In Britain, it allows our neighbours to ignore their role in the disaster of their rule.

McGuinness was undoubtedly a violent man in command of a group of violent men.

His opponents on the battlefield – the streets of Derry – were equally violent, but their violence was backed by the Crown and made them all but immune from prosecution or consequence.

When both sides had enough, much was made of the conversion of the “men of violence”, a term exclusively employed to describe the IRA, the INLA, the LVF, the UVF and other armed groups.

Little or nothing was said about the complicity of the state forces of the United Kingdom (and to a lesser extent the Republic of Ireland), and their role in the tragedy of those decades.

In our islands we wish to consign the Troubles to history, blithely ignoring that we continue to visit injustices – sometimes violently – on sections of our populations.

Whether it be the economic violence of austerity or the physical violence of state brutality, we still divide into “us” and “them”.

The reason we try to make this distinction is that we cannot countenance the fact that the “men of violence” were exactly like us – mostly fathers, brothers and sons, but also mothers, sisters and daughters who reached a point where they believed that peaceful protest was no longer effective.

We abhor their actions, but then we turn on the news to hear of a wedding bombed in Afghanistan and we feel nothing.

Beware the commentary that would simplify and attempt to remove Martin McGuinness from his context, and that would somehow suggest that he had a monopoly on violence, or that the violence of the state is automatically justified and justifiable.

There was never two Martin McGuinnesses – he was both a violent man and a skilled political operator.

So too was Nelson Mandela, another man once considered a terrorist only to be all but absolved of his sins in peace and, ultimately, in death.

Eventually the time came when both of them realised that the ballot box was indeed more useful than the Armalite.

But it is probably fair to say that, if either of them were ever again faced with the same level of cruelty or injustice being visited on their people, they would not have hesitated for one second to take up their arms again.

Nelson Mandela didn’t change.

Martin McGuinness didn’t change.

We did.