Martin McGuinness at Colin Keenan’s funeral in 1972

From guns to government

Kevin Bean unravels the enigma of Martin McGuinness - IRA commander and deputy first minster of Northern Ireland

The obituary editors had plenty of time to prepare for the death of Martin McGuinness. It was clear from last December that he was in very bad health - a fact confirmed by his resignation as deputy first minister in January of this year.

This chronicle of a death foretold was reflected in the political comment and media obituaries which appeared in the days following the announcement of his passing. In many ways it was all rather predictable: the dominant theme emphasised McGuinness’s transformation from ‘terrorist’ to ‘peace-maker’ and of the stages he had passed along the way from Irish Republican Army commander to deputy first minister of a state he had been pledged to destroy. Comments from former British politicians, and others who had dealings with him during the peace process, were studiously balanced, focussing on his ‘positive contribution to the new Northern Ireland’ that had emerged after 1998.

However, his earlier role as one of the public faces of the emerging Provisional IRA had its place too in the media narrative. Young but still sufficiently senior in rank, he became a member of an IRA delegation (including Gerry Adams) that was flown to England to negotiate with the Conservative government in 1972. Furthermore, interviews and journalistic reminiscences reminded us of Martin McGuinness’s support for the “cutting edge of the armed struggle” in the 1970s and 1980s, and his justification that “the IRA’s campaign was the only way to end British imperialism’s control of Ireland and reunite the country”.

These were usually contrasted with accounts of his (and Sinn Féin’s) movement into constitutional politics and ministerial office following the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. This culminated in the quite extraordinary ‘Chuckle Brother’ relationship that Mr McGuinness enjoyed with Ian Paisley in government after 2007 - alongside other symbolic turning points, such as his handshake with Queen Elizabeth during her visit to Belfast or his condemnation of dissident republicans as “traitors to Ireland”.

However, a number of commentators and political opponents had the bad taste to puncture this developing consensus. The Daily Mail and The Sun concentrated on his “murderous past” as the “butcher of the Bogside”, whilst some Tories and unionists, with true Christian charity (in the case of Norman Tebbit), declared McGuinness “an unrepentant terrorist” and wished him an “an eternity in hell”. This vehement hatred was directed less at what Martin McGuinness had become when he died and more at what he had represented in the 1970s and 1980s, when the Provisional campaign for the 32-county socialist republic was at its height.

The TV archive footage of a youthful McGuinness openly and proudly proclaiming his IRA membership reminds us not only of his own past, but also of the life experience of countless thousands of other young, working class republicans and the mass movement they built on the streets and in the jails to challenge the British state in Ireland. It is as a symbol of that movement and that historical moment that Martin McGuinness remains a hate figure for some Tory politicians and irreconcilable unionists.

Most establishment figures, however, took a different tack and recognised what they considered to be his political achievements in securing and consolidating Northern Ireland’s new dispensation in the 2000s. According to Tony Blair, McGuinness played an “indispensible and key role” in that process, which saw the transformation of the Provisionals from a revolutionary republican movement into a constitutional nationalist party.

This aspect of his personal story too embodies a wider experience and a political journey made by other republicans. However, the difference was that McGuinness was a leading figure in the transition from ‘guns to government’. Not only was he part of a Provisional leadership that defined the line of march away from revolutionary republicanism and towards rapprochement with the constitutional and political status quo, but, drawing on his political and military prestige as a committed republican, he ensured that his followers largely followed him in that retreat. At key turning points he made important public speeches and interventions at ard fheiseanna that traded on this reputation to engender loyalty and support for the new line.

I have met countless republicans who said that for active members of the IRA in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s the phrase, ‘If it’s good enough for Martin, it’s good enough for me’, became axiomatic, as previously unthinkable positions - recognising the Northern Irish state, its legal and policing system, and entering its government - were adopted by the Provisionals. Martin McGuinness not only used persuasion and his established reputation to swing an argument, but was equally skilled in the black political arts of internal manoeuvre and outflanking potential opponents within the IRA and the republican movement more generally to secure the leadership’s position.

Together with Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness kept the Provisionals largely together throughout all the stresses and strains of the peace process, and ensured that the dissidents who split away did so at different times and on different issues, so as to remain a largely marginal force. As Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s chief of staff, acknowledged in his memoirs, having republican interlocutors who could keep the IRA together and bring most Provisionals on side was essential during the peace process and a key to the success of the British government’s strategy.

It is perhaps this role within the republican movement that will gratefully be remembered by both the British state and his revolutionary republican critics as Martin McGuinness’s greatest achievement - and an essential precursor to his more public roles in government with Ian Paisley after 2007. In this sense his life is of a piece that cannot be simply divided into an early violent phase and a later political career.

As with the movement he led throughout the troubles, you cannot have one without the other: the IRA volunteer and the politician were both the same, yet also radically different people - formed and ultimately defined by the historical events and dramatic circumstances that shaped them and Ireland in the last third of the 20th century.