Since Martin McGuinness has announced his candidacy for the post of Irish President, I’ve lost count of the number of programmes and newspaper articles that have focused almost exclusively on his past in the IRA.
It happened again today. I was on BBC Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh’s The Stephen Nolan Show and that was where all the emphasis was placed – on McGuinness’s past. No, tell a lie – his distant past. The past twenty years and his work for peace? Perhaps mentioned but then hurried away from. Guest of honour for the day (pace Gregory Campbell) was Fintan O’Toole of The Irish Times. Sad to say Fintan made his excuses (“I’m not being allowed to talk!”) and left before the rest of us. But while he was with us, he spoke yet again with the moral authority only available to him and a small number of media gurus: if made President, ex-IRA man Martin McGuinness could be arrested as a war criminal, so the south had better not elect him.
Considering that Fintan is said to have a very big brain, that was an amazingly loopy thing to say. Former IRA Chief of Staff Sean MacBride was appointed Minister for External Affairs in 1948 and went on to be awarded – uniquely – the Nobel Prize for Peace and the Lenin Prize for Peace. Former IRA man General Sean MacEoin was made Minister for Justice in 1948, and was twice the Fine Gael candidate for Irish President. Sean T O’Kelly and Eamon de Valera both were imprisoned by the British (Dev was sentenced to death for his part in the 1916 Rising, although Fintan says it was all a misunderstanding and Dev didn’t fire a shot). Between them – O’Kelly and Dev – they occupied the Presidential post for twenty-eight years. So it looks like that O’Toole horse has just crashed at the first hurdle.
Fintan’s other Big Thing is that McGuinness would be open to arrest for war crimes, because the Geneva Convention forbids actions where non-combatants are tortured or killed. Are you listening? Yes, you – I’m talking to you – Tony Blair, George Bush, Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela, Michael Collins, Winston Churchill…The list is endless. Armed conflict is a horrible, filthy business and in it non-combatants invariably suffer and die. In Ireland, in Germany, in England, in the US, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Libya…again, it’s endless. If Fintan and his partitionist mates were to list in detail the pain and suffering and death inflicted by, say, Harry Truman alone, at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we’d be here until the crack of doom. I don’t know if Martin McGuinness was guilty forty years ago of breaching the Geneva Convention, but I do know that, if war criminals are all to be rounded up, starting with those who slaughtered most people, by the time they get to McGuinness he’ll have died of extreme old age.
In the end it’s simple. There are commentators and media people – a powerful nucleus – who see Martin McGuinness’s candidacy as a threat to partition. Keep those pesky damned northerners out of sight and out of mind. To block McGuinness they’ll do and say anything, usually four times, to persuade people that the Sinn Féin man is uniquely unsuited. They don’t mind unionists working with him in the north, in fact they insist on it. But Merciful Hour, don’t ask us Catholics in the south to have him in our Áras.
Will the Irish people of the south (not you, Virginia, you little northern vixen, you don’t HAVE a vote, how often must I tell you?) – will they allow Fintan and Co to do their thinking for them? I’ve lived in the south and I’m happy to say I really don’t believe they will. Which means, Fintan, you’re talking through your…Fintan? Are you still there? Oh dear. He’s left the building.