Irony abounded yesterday. Enda Kenny spoke of Martin McGuinness’s ‘terrorist past’ while standing in front of a huge portrait of Michael Collins which decorates his office. BBC and RTÉ reporters stressed the need to see Martin McGuinness ‘in the round’ – that is, besides being a peacemaker who worked tirelessly for reconciliation, he was responsible for so many deaths. To drive home the second feature of McGuinness, they had moving testimony from those whose parents or spouses had been killed by the IRA and who blamed Martin McGuinness for this. And yes, the broadcasting outlets did stress how much Martin McGuinness had given of himself to reach out to unionism. They forgot to add how little response he got from unionist politicians.
Or at least how little response he got while he lived. Yesterday, both Peter Robinson and David Trimble released their salute to McGuinness, and they both spoke with generosity and warmth about his achievements. And the irony? They waited until he was dead. Had they issued similar statements when he was alive, when he was making effort after effort to bridge the gulf between republicanism/nationalism and unionism, such interventions could have made all the difference. Sinn Féin would have found it harder to speak of disrespect when two former First Ministers spoke of the Sinn Féin leader with such unequivocal approval. But they didn’t. They waited until it would have the least impact.
Perhaps most ironic of all, there was little or no stress placed on what should have been an obvious question: what motivated Martin McGuinness and thousands like him to resort to violence? Was he programmed that way? Were all those IRA men and women motivated by blood-lust and hatred, a blood-lust and hatred that suddenly boiled over for no reason in the early 1970s and continued for the next two decades, until they they suddenly decided they didn’t want to hate and spill blood any more?
It can’t be stressed often enough: people like McGuinness joined the IRA knowing that their chances of being killed or imprisoned were very high. And yet they did it. Such a decision must have been motivated by something. Fifty years of unionist misrule? Attacks by the RUC and B Specials on civil rights marchers? The beating to death by the RUC of Catholic man Sammy Devenney, in his own home, in front of his children, because he had dared to participate in a civil rights march?
We could go on and on listing motivation points. As some have quite rightly pointed out, not everyone took a violent path like Martin McGuinness. John Hume didn’t, and thousands of his followers didn’t. But then if you look at the composition of the SDLP, while far from exclusively middle-class, it had a great deal more middle-class members than Sinn Féin, just as the IRA had a lot more working-class members than middle-class. Catholic working-class areas were on the receiving end of everything that was detestable in the Orange state, including unlawful killing. Little wonder, then, as Pearse Doherty said on radio yesterday, that so many of them decided, in Martin McGuinness’s words, to “fight back”. Doherty also added that he hoped that if he had been in the same position as Martin McGuinness at that time, he too would have “fought back”. As a devout coward, it’s obvious to me that fighting back took real courage. We can feel fairly safe in suggesting that not all decisions to follow the peaceful path were based on morality.
Finally, tribute should be paid to Mary Lou McDonald. Among all the verbiage and photographs of McGuinness with that pistol, among all the talk of McGuinness having ‘two lives’, the IRA life and the political life, the Sinn Féin vice-president suggested that people should stop marvelling at the change which occurred in Martin McGuinness in the mid-1990s. Far from being unique, she said, Irish history is replete with men who followed the same path as McGuinness. How a state which had Eamon de Valera as its Taoiseach and President, had Sean Lemass as its Taoiseach, had Frank Aitken as its Minister of External Affairs, people like Dan Breen, Sean MacBride, Richard Mulcahy, Cathal Brugha – how can such a state speak of the ‘contradictions’ in Martin McGuinness’s life?
Enough with the faux bewilderment that Martin McGuinness had a Damascene conversion to politics. Enough with the partial history of our country.