Pat Stack, in an article for the socialist website rs21.org.uk, looks at the struggles that shaped former IRA leader and republican politician Martin McGuinness, who died on 21 March.
The death of Martin McGuinness has allowed two fairly standard, and on the face of it contrasting, narratives to emerge.
The official one – as espoused with greater or lesser enthusiasm by the likes of Tony Blair, Theresa May, John Major, Alastair Campbell and the like – is that there was a bad bloodthirsty McGuinness that killed, maimed and tortured, who grew into a good peace-loving McGuinness that helped secure peace and stretched his hands out across the sectarian divide.
Then there is the second response, which either dismisses the “good” McGuinness altogether, or says it was too little too late – that basically he was an evil man who did evil things for which he never apologised, and to paraphrase Norman Tebbit, deserves to “be parked in a particularly hot and unpleasant corner of hell”.
Although these two responses are very different in their tone and humanity, they do have one essential belief in common. They both believe that McGuinness’ role in the armed struggle was criminally wrong and indefensible.
From the standpoint of both these camps, nothing can justify taking up arms, no cause can justify killing. There is no “good terrorist”.
Interestingly not one of the people expressing this view is a pacifist. All of them in one way or another have ordered, supported, or in some cases even participated in armed conflict. All have found justification for the use of arms and praised those that have done the killing as heroes.
Whether it be the supremely crazy Falklands War, fought for an island no one had heard of that was apparently ‘British’ despite its geographical location, or the supremely dishonest Iraq war, called over non-existent weapons of mass destruction, these people ordered and defended bloodshed on a far greater scale than McGuinness was ever involved in – and incidentally they never apologised for that.
It is also worth noting that while these British politicians ordered others to kill from the comfort of their armchairs, McGuinness was not asking others to take on the onus of killing or the risks of dying without taking the same responsibilities and risks himself.
Furthermore, McGuinness could provide far greater justification for his cause than the fate of an obscure barely populated rock in the South Atlantic, or the search for the military equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster in Iraq.
McGuinness grew up in a state that was created by sectarian design by the British in 1921, which divided the island of Ireland and remained one of the bulwarks of British imperialism since that time.
As a Catholic, McGuinness grew up in a state whose first prime minister Viscount Craigavon had boasted that “we are a Protestant parliament and a Protestant state”, and whose successor urged all good Protestant employers not to employ Catholics in their factories, on their farms, or even as servants in their homes.
This systematic discrimination effectively barred Catholics from employment in many major workplaces, saw them discriminated against in housing policy, and generally treated as second class citizens.
Furthermore, there was no normal “democratic” route to challenge this state of affairs. The six-county Northern Irish state had been created with an inbuilt Protestant majority, and even in areas where Catholics made up the majority (such as McGuinness’s home town of Derry) the voting was rigged with bizarrely drawn up electoral wards and voting rights tied to property and business ownership. This ensured that Unionist representatives maintained electoral control and continued to implement discriminatory policies.
In order to defend this sectarian state of affairs, and cope with the one in three who were being excluded from jobs, housing and democratic rights, the Northern Ireland state was highly authoritarian.
The Royal Ulster Constabulary was the only armed uniformed police force in the UK. They were supplemented by an armed reserve force (the B-Specials) that was effectively a Protestant militia. There were special powers that gave huge control and licence to these forces, and a biased judiciary. Internment without trial was introduced at some point in every decade of the state’s existence from the 1920s to the 1970s.
In the late 1960s, in part inspired by the black liberation movement in the US, a movement for civil rights in the North emerged looking to end this state of affairs. At first, it was not a Republican movement, nor a movement about uniting Ireland, although there were Republicans on the fringes of it.
It was a peaceful movement, divided as such movements often are into “moderate” and “militant” wings, between those who wanted a softly-softly approach and a left wing that demanded immediate change.
But the state would have no truck with either wing. Civil rights marches were met with police violence, B-Special attacks and Loyalist ambushes.
It was this situation that politicised the young McGuinness. Like many of his age group, he had grown up in this sectarian atmosphere, experienced discrimination, was inspired to join the fight for civil rights – and angered by the response to it.
Like many of his generation who witnessed the battering of the civil rights movement, the arrival of the British Army, internment without trial and eventually the Bloody Sunday massacre on the streets of Derry, he turned to Republicanism.
Peaceful protest had failed, and armed resistance appeared to be the answer. Those like McGuinness who turned to armed struggle were not bloodthirsty maniacs, wild-eyed extremists, or politically incoherent idiots. Rather they were people with serious grievances against a sectarian state and a violent occupying army who had reached a very logical, if ultimately politically inadequate conclusion – that Republican politics and armed resistance were the only solutions.
A pacifist could condemn him for spilling blood, and relatives of IRA victims will carry their own understandable hurt. But those who participated in or supported bloodshed in much less justifiable circumstances cannot.
McGuinness was by all accounts an incredibly courageous and charismatic man, hugely respected by his fellow IRA and Sinn Fein members, and by much of the wider nationalist community. He was apparently a very good military leader, who enjoyed huge trust from his comrades in arms. It is surely questionable whether without his enthusiastic support the overwhelming majority of the IRA would have agreed to lay down their arms.
He subsequently became a linchpin of the peace process, and deputy first minister of the very state he’d dedicated much of his life to overthrowing.
By the time of the Good Friday Agreement there was no doubt that the armed struggle had reached an impasse. There was little evidence that either side could win. The prospect of continued killing and dying with no likely resolution meant that “peace” in the sense of the cessation of armed struggle was the right way to go.
The “peace process” however was altogether more problematic. It enshrined and institutionalised the sectarian divide, with each group represented by their own political leaders, effectively managing a capitalist state within that context.
Rather than becoming the voice of radical opposition, Sinn Fein became a key part of maintaining the new status quo. It was always likely to be the case that the political thought that dominated Republicanism would lead to such a place once guns were laid down. In that sense, there was a logical continuation in McGuinness’ politics.
It is, of course, the “peace process” McGuinness that Blair and the like so admire and want to remember. McGuinness though, for all his political shortcomings, would surely also want to be remembered as the man who helped lead resistance to a rotten, sectarian, undemocratic, repressive state.
So let the Blairs of this world celebrate what McGuinness turned into. We should remember and defend McGuinness the freedom fighter – and reject the hypocrisy of those that so haughtily denounces that struggle.
First published at www.rs21.org.uk.