Is it right or wrong to refer to Martin McGuinness’s ‘military service’?

About a week ago, an event occurred thousands of miles away and instantly created anger and a sense of outrage here. No words will change that anger or outrage, but the situation does bear examination, because it tells us something we should (if we don’t already) know.

The events, as you may have guessed, was the award of a Certificate of Honor to the late Martin McGuinness for his “courageous service in the military”  and  for his work as a negotiator who helped “cement and shape the Northern Ireland Peace Process and construct the Good Friday Agreement.”  Relatives of those lost to IRA violence have expressed their anger, suggesting the Mayor of San Francisco, who signed the Certificate, should come over here and see some of the pain created by the IRA.  Since then, the Mayor has apologized for the wording of the Certificate and to victims for any pain caused.

It’s unlikely that the anger felt here related to the honouring of McGuinness’s work as a peacemaker. I suppose it’s possible but I doubt it. Most unionists, including at least some victims of IRA violence, have acknowledged McGuinness’s extraordinary efforts at reconciliation, not least the friendship he formed with Ian Paisley and his family.

What jarred, almost certainly, were the words “courageous” and “military service.”

In one way that’s odd. Martin McGuinness never made any secret of his involvement in the IRA, and in fact on more than one occasion expressed pride to have been a member. No one, during his life, was left in any doubt about how he regarded the IRA.  At the Savile Inquirty, if I remember rightly, he said he would rather die than disown his former comrades and the IRA itself.

In fact, during his life  McGuinness was admired by quite a few unionists. Sometimes invidious comparisons were drawn between his openness about having been in the IRA and Gerry Adams’s insistence that he was not.  Despite this IRA background, McGuinness’s funeral was attended by former Taoisigh, by the leader  and former leader of the DUP, by the leader of the Ulster Unionists, by the PSNI Chief Constable. Eulogies were delivered by two Protestant clergymen and by the former US President Bill Clinton. McGuinness’s life was summarized strikingly by Clinton: “I fought, I made peace, I made politics.”

Why the outrage now? Because, as the Mayor of San Francisco has implicitly conceded, the phrase “military service”  jarred.  That terms is one used widely in the British army and other armies throughout the world. It implies that the people involved have “served” their country by their participation in military action. They wear uniform, and medals and honours are awarded to such men.

Did Martin McGuinness’s  companions in the IRA admire his courage during the conflict? I don’t know but I’d suspect they did – otherwise he wouldn’t have held the senior position he’s generally accredited with, and so many former IRA men and women wouldn’t have followed his lead into a ceasefire and negotiations.

The trouble is that the term “military service” appears to put IRA combatants on the same level as British armed forces. This has always been rejected by unionists – the IRA were terrorists, they didn’t wear uniforms, they performed cowardly acts of carnage. But that’s not how the IRA or their supporters saw them. They saw IRA volunteers as courageous, in some instances self-sacrificing, and probably more honorable than the British combatants with whom they engaged.

As the Mayor of San Francisco has shown she’s aware, words can hurt, sometimes by being wrenched out of context, sometimes because they simply are hurtful.  That said, while it’s understandable that victims of republican violence would detest the IRA and Martin McGuinness’s part in it,  it’s equally understandable that others, including the City and County of San Francisco, would honour him. To insist on a hierarchy of combatants as well as a hierarchy of victims is unlikely  to further reconciliation. 

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