Former Derry News editor and political commentator Garbhan Downey reflects on Martin McGuinness’s life.
‘The death of people doesn’t banish them out of your consciousness. They’re part of the light in your head.’ – Seamus Heaney
Martin McGuinness, in his full health, could have been the next President of Ireland.
But truth is, the title would have mattered little; he was already the island’s most influential statesman.
There was never going to be an ideal time for him to end his epoch-shaping, five-decade career. Too many people, processes and institutions depended on him.
Nonetheless, the principled manner of Mr McGuinness’s departure from Stormont in January, when, despite being gravely ill, he called time on a corrupted parliament, will stand forever as testament to the moral calibre of the man.
His last political act was to stop a tide of inequality and discrimination in its tracks. And, painful though it was to watch, he will never be forgotten for it.
The British, God help them, could quite never understand, or cope with, the love that the people of Derry had for Martin McGuinness.
It wasn’t an uncritical love and, at times, he tested it sorely. But ultimately Mr McGuinness, for all the flaws of youth, was the embodiment of our fight against injustice. He was the measure of our determination.
Whereas John Hume epitomised our yearning for agreement, partnership and mutual compassion, Mr McGuinness symbolised our resistance and defiance. And at times, unfortunately, it was necessary to resist and defy – even if we disputed or abhorred the methods.
It is easy to forget today the institutional prejudice, discrimination and outright anti-Catholic hatred that existed in the North before Civil Rights. Just as it is easy to forget the extreme vulnerability of the Catholic population. There was a very specific context behind the growth of the IRA, which far too many revisionist commentators are still unable, or unwilling, to acknowledge.
When the Civil Rights campaign divided between those who would attempt to pursue peace and politics, and those who would stand and give battle, Mr McGuinness chose the latter option. And he was very good at it. By his early twenties, the man from Limewood Street was the top military commander of his generation. With a guerilla army of barely a couple of thousand volunteers and supporters, he was holding his own (and more) against a massive war machine, which had conquered half the globe and won two world wars.
As a general, he was both fearless and ruthless. Some of his more visceral strategies, such as the IRA’s Economic War in the 1970s which left Derry looking like it had been bombed from the air, were anathema to all but his closest supporters.
But for all that, he and the IRA were able to operate with impunity across wide tracts of the North, not because they were feared but because they were regarded as a necessary last line of defence. Bloody Sunday taught us that. The British pinned medals on troops who shot unarmed civilians, while the South stood helplessly by. ‘Martin’ was the city’s only remaining protector.
His volunteer soldiers revered and trusted him. Even in latter years, when there were heated disputes in community halls over policing and decommissioning, the last words of many a debate would be: ‘If it’s good enough for Martin McGuinness, it’s good enough for me.’
Some of the toughest old men I know were brought to tears by his demise. They couldn’t have loved him more if he had been their own brother.
In 1972, Mr McGuinness was flown to London for quickly aborted discussions with the British. But significantly he was not part of the republican delegation involved in the failed, protracted negotiations of 1975.
Indeed, the breakdown of the 1975 truce paved the way for hardliners like Mr McGuinness and Gerry Adams to come to fore, at the expense of older IRA leaders who had invested heavily in the fruitless talks.
Initially, however, the new command lacked the political nous of their predecessors. The Adams leadership had little experience of dealing either directly or indirectly with the British establishment, little or no concept of back-channel diplomacy, and few strategic objectives other than British withdrawal. And because of this, mistakes were made. They sometimes twisted when they should have stuck, and they dug in their heels when they should have talked. But they learned quickly. They had to.
Mr McGuinness, himself, was one of the lead republican negotiators during the Hunger Strikes and fought tirelessly, internally and externally, to get a resolution. For weeks in 1981, he was billeted on a couch in Brendan Duddy’s study, while both he and the mediator engaged in hour-by-hour telephone negotiations with the British to revive and reinforce the Christmas 1980 deal that the NIO, and the Prison Service, had reneged on.
Ultimately, though, both Mr McGuinness and the IRA presumed too much on Margaret Thatcher’s humanity and were undermined by her unilateral decision to foreclose the talks and let the men die.
The Sinn Fein strategy that emerged after the Hunger Strikes, however, saw Mr McGuinness transition from an immovable military force into an unstoppable political one. While still pursuing a long war in the 1980s, increasingly on British turf, he set about building allegiances and repurposing republican positions into long-term, medium-term and short-term goals.
For the first time, through both direct dialogue and mediators, republicans began attempting to come to terms with legitimate unionist aspirations. They recognised a need to mature, to reach out to old opponents, and to look beyond quick fixes.
In 1990, when the British intelligence chief Michael Oatley was about to retire, Mr McGuinness met with him at a house on Derry’s Glen Road to explore potential options in a post-Thatcher era. This off-the-books meeting set in train the re-opening of a back channel, operating through Derry, in which Mr McGuinness and other IRA negotiators such as Gerry Kelly were able to discuss methods of bringing a purposeful conclusion to their armed campaign.
At that time, there were many other talks going on, involving political parties, intermediaries, church leaders, the Haughey government, and even international brokers. But at the end of the day, the dialogue that counted was that which took place between the central parties to the conflict; the IRA and the British government.
And Martin McGuinness was the man who shook hands on the peace deal; his word was the one the British wanted.
An agreed political direction was key to the honourable settlement, and because of Mr McGuinness’s new alliances with constitutional Irish nationalism, he had the authority, and support, to take the republican campaign through the gates of Stormont. It was a dangerous move but a visionary one. A number of his old comrades could not stomach the notion of compromise and went their own way, some with rancour.
Mr McGuinness was not deterred, however. He began using skill as a negotiator, and his integrity as a trusted dealmaker, to engage his former enemies in a meaningful way. And within a matter of years, the frosty peace, which had seen unionists storm petulantly out of TV or radio studios as soon as Sinn Fein entered, transformed into genuine warmth and affection – even friendships. Mr McGuinness’s self-effacing charisma, and his deafness to petty slights and insults, helped enormously in this endeavour.
As Education Minister, Mr McGuinness led a political revolution, which for a brief period presaged the end of the iniquitous 11-Plus exam. But it was his partnership in the Office of First and Deputy First Minister with Ian Paisley which saw him take the art of politics to its highest level – that of genuine peace-building.
While his near-decade in Stormont’s top office was sometimes turbulent, it was underpinned with an irrevocable desire to cement a lasting friendship between the communities here and to build a shared future.
He repeatedly showed grace to those who were slow in offering him the same courtesy. His kindness to both Mr Paisley and Peter Robinson during difficult times in their lives was the mark of a true conciliator, a man who resolutely believed in Heaney’s ‘great sea-change on the far side of revenge’. And in time, his grace was rewarded with grace in return.
Even in his final days, his valiant attempts to help Arlene Foster save herself from her own pride demonstrated a Christianity that she herself could learn from.
Personally, I don’t know if Mr McGuinness was ever the IRA Chief of Staff – I never asked him outright. But I always figured if there was another one that s/he would certainly have had to clear whatever it was s/he had planned with Martin first. We in the media, of course, referred to him as ‘The Horse’s Mouth’; you would never go past him looking for another answer.
He was far too kind with the local press, who regularly abused his good nature, torturing him for interviews and then veering off the promised script. And poor Dominic Doherty, his trusted lieutenant, would be sent out afterwards to administer the scoldings. (There were very few days at Radio Foyle ever improved by the announcement: ‘That’s Dominic looking for you on Line One.’)
For all that, Mr McGuinness realised the great importance of the media in building a new society, and showed great acuity by appointing one of this city’s top young journalists, Mark Mullan, formerly of the Derry News, as his Special Advisor.
Mark, Dominic and the wider Sinn Fein circle will miss Mr McGuinness terribly; he is such a profound loss to them - as he is also to the Derry media. He inspired great loyalty in us because no matter what the issue, we were always convinced he was batting for the home side. We admired him and believed in him because in an arena filled with charlatans, he was never anything but straight with us – no matter how awkward it made his life.
He was also, without doubt, a force for good for Derry, a true champion of the city, or the ‘Fíor-Taoiseach’ (True-Chieftain), as one lifelong comrade astutely called him. All the new developments in the North West over the past decade had his hand in them somewhere. Ebrington, our City of Culture year, the A5 and A6 road developments, the host of new school builds, the Heaney Homeplace, Ballykelly and Altnagelvin, all bore his mark.
It would have been fitting if Mr McGuinness had been able to leave politics at a time of his own choosing. He had worked ceaselessly for his cause and so deserved a long and happy retirement with his wife Bernie, his children Gráinne, Fionnuala, Fiachra and Emmett, and his grandchildren. Some time to get in a bit of fishing, to walk at Inch Island and to read a little poetry – or even write a little. But it wasn’t in the cards.
His family, we trust, might find comfort in the huge affection and respect with which Mr McGuinness is held in Derry, and in knowing that his legacy of peace and hope will endure for generations.
He served his family, his city, and his country loyally, honestly and without fear, and he made a difference, for the better, in all our lives.
Not all political careers end in failure; some just end too soon.
Fear uasal, fear cróga, Gael dílis, suaimhneas síoraí duit.
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