Martin McGuinness: back to the streets of Derry one last time

Man, movement and state

The transformation of Martin McGuinness from freedom fighter to ‘man of peace’ cannot be put down to individual failings, writes James Harvey

Martin McGuinness’s funeral in Derry on March 23 has been described as “the nearest thing that Derry had seen to a state funeral”.1 The list of mourners, a roll call of the great and good included Irish president Michael D Higgins, taoiseach Enda Kenny, former US president Bill Clinton, former Irish president Mary McAleese, British secretary of state James Brokenshire, the leaders of the main Stormont parties (past and present), and Northern Ireland’s chief constable, George Hamilton. Barack Obama wrote a letter of condolence, whilst Queen Elizabeth sent a private message to McGuinness’s widow, Bernie.

This symbolic gathering of representatives of the political establishment from both sides of the Irish Sea clearly represented a very public acknowledgement of Martin McGuinness’s contribution to the peace process and recognition of his personal journey from gunman to politician.2 As father Michael Canny said during the requiem mass, “There are people in this church today whose presence would have been unthinkable a generation ago.”3

Clinton’s eulogy during the mass captured the mood by urging the assembled politicians to continue his “legacy and finish the work he has started” by restoring the power-sharing government.4 But, as Clinton reminded the congregation, these positive assessments of McGuinness as a republican leader were not shared by everyone: according to him, Martin McGuinness’s political journey from man of war to man of peace had “risked the wrath of his comrades and the rejection of his enemies”.5

Whilst in his graveside oration (delivered far away from ‘the great and the good’), Gerry Adams might reaffirm that McGuinness was a “freedom fighter”, for revolutionary republicans he had indeed died a traitor. For those still standing by the republic, McGuinness, “the boy from the Bogside who took on the British”, had ended his days as a counterrevolutionary in ‘the service of colonial power’.6

The dramatic quality of the funeral and conflicting political emotions it aroused amongst republicans understandably focused attention on McGuinness as a man and a political leader. However, any assessment of his historical significance demands much more than a simple retelling of the old, old story of individual treachery and betrayal that is too often associated with the history of Irish republicanism. The boy from the Bogside’s life was both very different and yet essentially the same as that of thousands of other republicans in the last 50 years of conflict.

Martin McGuinness helped to create the movement he embodied, but was also in turn shaped by it. In this sense the life experience of the man and the political trajectory of the movement are one and the same, and the only way we can really understand both is by bringing the two stories together.

The man

The journey of Martin McGuinness from IRA volunteer to deputy first minister encapsulates the history of Northern Ireland since the late 1960s. He was born in the Bogside, a nationalist working class area of Derry, which would become one of the cockpits of ‘the troubles’. An area of high unemployment and poor housing, the Bogside epitomised the social deprivation endured by Catholics in the Orange state.

Derry was a notorious example of the political gerrymandering and conscious discrimination which ensured unionist domination of the Six Counties state from1920 and ultimately brought about its collapse in 1972. Some of the key moments in the history of the civil rights challenge to the unionist state were enacted in Derry. Following one of the first major civil rights marches in October 1968, confrontations between the nationalist population and the forces of the state intensified, culminating in the Battle of the Bogside and the introduction of British troops in August 1969. The city that McGuinness grew up in would become a global symbol of struggle and resistance against state repression. It was in this environment that McGuiness became involved with the developing militant republican movement.

The Provisional IRA began to emerge as an armed movement among the urban working class and sections of the rural population from the autumn of 1969. The Provisionals combined a defence of the nationalist community with a developing campaign against the unionist state and British imperialism and for the reunification of Ireland. The growth of the Provisionals can be explained as a response to particularly draconian examples of state repression, including internment without trial in 1971 and Bloody Sunday in January 1972. Thus the founding moment of Provisionalism was one of revolutionary crisis for the British state in Northern Ireland, while the movement reflected “a community in revolt rather than a hermetically sealed secret society of gunmen and bombers”.7

As a leading figure in the Derry IRA, McGuinness was prominent in turning it into an effective guerrilla force and, while still young, commanded sufficient respect to become a member of an IRA delegation (including Gerry Adams) that was flown to England in 1972 to negotiate with the Conservative government.

The movement

From this time on he earned a reputation, both within and without the movement, as an uncompromising and committed republican. McGuinness continued to reject constitutional politics throughout the 1970s and early 80s, stating as late as 1986 that “the war against British rule must continue until freedom is achieved”.

He spoke these words at the 1986 Sinn Féin ard fheis, as the Provisionals voted to end abstentionism and take seats as elected members of the Dublin parliament. His speech in support of this decision was vital in reassuring delegates that the leadership had “absolutely no intention of going to Westminster or Stormont” or “edging the republican movement onto a constitutional path”. Trying to head off a split by supporters of ‘traditional’ republicanism, McGuinness concluded his speech with a now famous appeal for unity:

If you allow yourself to be led out of this hall today, the only place you’re going is home. You will be walking away from the struggle. Don’t go, my friends. We will lead you to the republic.8

In retrospect the decision to end abstentionism proved to be a significant turning point in the republican struggle and McGuinness, as a leading figure in both the military and political wings of the republican movement, played an indispensable role in ensuring that this new direction was taken. Just as an earlier generation of republicans had argued that ‘If it’s good enough for Mick (Collins), it’s good enough for me’, Martin McGuinness drew on his almost legendary status as an ‘active republican’ and his personal powers of persuasion to assuage fears of betrayal and manage internal critics.9 This role placed him at the centre of events, as the Provisionals moved into the political mainstream and began secret contacts with the British state from the late 1980s.

However, this transformation from ‘insurrection to parliament’ was not simply a product of Martin McGuinness’s own personal journey.10 In common with the rest of the Provisional movement, his individual political trajectory away from militant republicanism towards constitutional nationalism was part of a much wider political shift that had been underway in the north of Ireland from the late 1970s.

Notwithstanding his confident assertions at the 1986 ard fheis about the effectiveness of the ballot paper and armalite strategy, it was becoming increasingly clear by that the Provisional campaign had been contained. The Adams/McGuinness leadership were coming to believe that a qualitatively new political situation was developing, both in Ireland and internationally, and the Provisional movement would be unable to achieve even limited goals by itself - much less fulfil its central aim of national reunification. Drawing on the experience of the H-block and hunger strike protests as models of political mobilisation, the leadership advanced a new ‘broad front’ strategy, which required building a coalition with potentially progressive anti-imperialist elements outside the republican movement.

Initially directed at the ‘green wing’ of the Social Democratic and Labour Party or ‘traditionalists’ in Fianna Fáil, the broad front was defined as a site of struggle in which republicans would fight to establish a revolutionary hegemony over these wavering elements. However, in practice, as the broad front quickly evolved in the early 1990s from a revolutionary war of manoeuvre into a diplomatic strategy of position, the anticipated positions were reversed: instead of the Provisionals leading the broad front, it was the Dublin government and constitutional nationalism that established their political dominance over the republicans.11

… and the British state

The other determining factor of this new political landscape was the changing relationship between the nationalist community and the British state following direct rule in 1972, which would ultimately prove decisive in the incorporation of Provisionalism into the status quo in Northern Ireland.

From the 1970s, Britain launched a series of political initiatives, such as the Sunningdale (1973) and Anglo-Irish (1985) agreements, aimed at countering a perceived nationalist alienation from authority, and bolstering constitutional politics by undermining support for militant republicanism. This was combined with the state’s ‘economic and social war against violence’, which would have much wider, although largely unforeseen, long-term political and social implications for the nationalist population.12

The net effect was that social and economic change in the 1980s and 1990s, whether independent of or mediated through the state, combined with British state strategy to reshape the terrain on which republican politics were conducted. One significant and widely noted result of these changes was the development of a new nationalist middle class, largely employed in the public sector, alongside the emergence of a new class of nationalist businessmen and social entrepreneurs.13

Many commentators have attributed the impact of this ‘rising nationalist bourgeoisie’ to the twin dynamics of political demobilisation and a deepening rapprochement between a new nationalist elite and the state. Eamonn McCann, in particular, described how this process was well underway by 1990 in McGuinness’s home city of Derry.14 Nationalist civil society in general, and community organisations in particular, became increasingly oriented towards the British state (and the European Union) for funding and resources during this period.15

These developments in civil society were also mirrored by processes of institutionalisation within the Provisional movement itself. With their deep roots in the nationalist community, and membership drawn from the same milieu as community activists (frequently the same individuals), it was perhaps inevitable that the Provisionals would experience similar processes of organisational formalisation and engagement with the state.16 In this way, community organisations and political structures that had originated as agencies of revolutionary mobilisation became gatekeepers between the state and the nationalist community, as well as acting as transmission belts for the Provisional movement.

Consequently by the early 1990s the Provisional movement’s position within the nationalist community had begun to express some of the characteristics of a form of state power, combining elements of consent with implicit and explicit coercion. Ultimately, however, that power was both directly and indirectly reliant on access to British state resources, and subject to Provisionalism’s role as a mediator between the state and the ‘resistance community’. Even before the peace process the “broad republican community”, as the Provisionals defined it, were acting as partners in the state’s peace-building strategy. Whilst the Provisionals may have believed they were subverting the intentions of the British state, in practice it was their revolutionary strategy which was being both subverted and transformed.

As the state now enjoyed increasing power to shape the terrain, so it was able to define the agenda for nationalist civil society. The impact was as much ideological and cultural as material. From the late 1980s onwards, key elements of the Provisional political agenda were concerned with making demands directed towards the state. Whilst republicans were theoretically committed to overthrowing the Northern Irish state, their political practice was more and more focused on bargaining with it and mobilising their supporters to pressurise it into granting concessions.

With the acceptance of the new dispensation after the Good Friday agreement, theory and practice were blended into a new synthesis of power-sharing and partnership. Thus the Provisionals were essentially functioning within an ideological framework and political context that has long been largely defined by the British state.17 In this sense, the peace process and the resulting political settlement that followed 1998 merely formalised existing, organically formed relationships between the nationalist community, the Provisional movement and the British state.

Whilst revolutionary republicans regularly attribute Provisional Sinn Féin’s movement into mainstream politics to the betrayal of republican principles and corruption - and sometimes even treachery - of individual leaders, such as Martin McGuinness, a real political obituary has to go beyond the circumstances of the individual life, and consider the dialectical relationship between the man and the movement, the movement and the state, the terrain on which they were formed and the social and economic forces that have transformed the nationalist community as a whole since the late 1980s.18 


1. BBC News March 24.

2. See K Bean, ‘From guns to government’ Weekly Worker March 23; and ‘Historic moment or business as usual?’ Weekly Worker March 9.

3. H McDonald, ‘Bill Clinton urges leaders at Martin McGuinness funeral to finish his work’ The Guardian March 24.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. G Moriarty, ‘McGuinness a freedom fighter, not a terrorist, says Adams’ The Irish Times March 24. For a summary of republican critiques of McGuinness’s political trajectory see DÓ Donghaile, ‘The death of a traitor’: http://irishdissent.wordpress.com; and K Rooney, ‘The boy from the Bogside who took on the British’ Spiked Online March 24.

7. Former IRA volunteer Tommy McKearney, quoted in K Bean The new politics of Sinn Féin Liverpool 2007, p53.

8. All quotes from McGuinness’s speech on abstentionism in Sinn Féin The politics of revolution: main speeches and debates, 1986 Sinn Féin ard fheis.

9. E Phoenix, ‘History will view Martin McGuinness positively’ The Irish News March 22.

10. T McKearney The Provisional IRA: from insurrection to parliament London 2011.

11. For an account of these developments see A McIntyre Good Friday: the death of Irish Republicanism New York 2008; and K Bean The new politics of Sinn Féin Liverpool 2007.

12. R Needham Battling for peace Belfast 1998.

13. F O’Connor In search of a state: Catholics in Northern Ireland Belfast 1993, p16.

14. E McCann War and peace in Northern Ireland Dublin 1998.

15. F Meredith, ‘Putting a price on peace?’ Irish Times January 10 2006.

16. For examples of this relationship between the Provisional movement and the nationalist community, see C de Baróid Ballymurphy and the Irish war London 2000.

17. A Aughey, ‘Unionists can add to vision of UK’ The News Letter July 7 2010.

18. See, for an example, an editorial in Republican Sinn Féin’s newspaper: ‘Adams accepts British police’ Saoirse November 2006.