When I heard the news that Martin McGuinness had died I thought of my granddad, who served in Northern Ireland as a British troop. He recalls the soldiers sticking razorblades into the rubber bullets they would fire on crowds of civilians. On one occasion a troop stuffed a large battery into his gun before firing it at a crowd. The shot killed a man, my grandfather claims.
He also remembers the sight of twin girls tarred and feathered for fraternising with British troops. This practice was allegedly supported by Martin McGuinness in the early years of his IRA involvement. McGuinness would later speak out against knee-capping – a brutal practice in which powerdrills were driven into people’s knees. The culture of violence was all pervasive at the height of the conflict. It brutalised and degraded its victims and its practitioners.
My grandfather’s experiences as a British soldier are complicated the fact that he came from an Irish Catholic family. His mother was from Donegal, and his uncle was a gunrunner for the IRA. Yet my granddad found himself as a soldier with a list of key targets, including the dearly departed. Whereas Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams was a spokesman, Martin McGuinness was regarded as a real menace in the early Seventies. Not that this stopped the British from negotiating with him at the time.
This was the same phase of the conflict that saw British soldiers shoot 26 people on Bloody Sunday, they left 14 people dead that day. It was a landmark event in the conflict, and a major reason why so many young Catholic men turned to the Provisional IRA. This was long before the British government came to understand it could not win in the Irish North. The same realisation would come to the IRA leadership as the Catholic community was exhausted by the years of violence.
Man of Violence
It’s important to view Martin McGuinness in historical terms. Otherwise you run the risk of losing sight of the man, and, more importantly, the times in which he lived. What we call euphemistically “the Troubles” began when Stormont and the RUC tried to repress the emergent Catholic civil rights movement in the Sixties. The popular demands for an end to the sectarian state, full voting rights and jobs went ignored. Instead the violence of loyalists would engender a violent response from Irish nationalists.
Fearing losing control of the situation, the British government deployed troops as a temporary measure to secure peaceful relations in the Six Counties. Of course, the reality was that the British establishment sided with Stormont and collaborated with loyalist death squads to this end. The status quo was predicated upon the electoral disenfranchisement of Catholics by way of property. But this settlement could not last forever. By the Sixties, it was rapidly approaching boiling point.
It was at this time that McGuinness came of age in Derry. At 18 Martin was turned to the civil rights cause by the sight of cops brutally beating protesters. It was the last straw when British soldiers fired upon a demonstrations with live rounds – killing Dessie Beattie and Seamus Cusack – in 1971. The non-violence of the civil rights marches had transitioned into the political violence of the Provos. Not much later McGuinness would become one of the leading IRA figures in Free Derry. The slain of Bloody Sunday would bolster the Republican cause.
The official narrative has it that McGuinness was a terrorist who came to his senses. This fits well with the way the conflict is framed, with IRA bombs as the sole cause. The truth is always more complex, for starters the Provisional IRA was founded as the Troubles began in 1969 in a break with the Official IRA over tactics. Originally focused on defensive actions the Provos soon graduated to offensive tactics. It was a question of means and ends for the nationalists.
Terrorism is the catch-all term used here. The most widely accepted definition of terrorism is violence perpetrated in the name of a political cause, usually against civilian targets though not exclusively. The last part is often used to absolve Western powers of such crimes, as if the intention defines the action and its impact. Noble motives are only assigned to the British and the Americans in these arguments. In reality, the British state used violence to try and quell the IRA into accepting the status quo.
The main assumption of Operation Banner was that the IRA was disrupting the harmony of Northern Ireland, when in actuality there was no such harmony except for the Orange state that had run the show since the war. Putting it bluntly, the British government were just as guilty of political violence as the IRA were. This fact does not justify, or excuse, the killing and brutalisation of civilians. Nor does it reinforce the pretext for occupying Northern Ireland in the first place. But it does throw the use of the phrase terrorism into doubt.
The Means and the End
After years of inter-communal violence, the peace process got off the ground as the armalite and ballot box strategy was clearly falling short of its ultimate aims. Yet negotiations became fruitful because all sides were exhausted by the violence, but also because the British public did not care enough about Northern Ireland to support the occupation indefinitely. At the time, the British government was increasingly unwilling to meet the costs. The idea of bombing your way to a united Ireland was always a fantasy.
It speaks rather well of McGuinness that he was able to see this opening for what it was and ended up in government with arch-loyalist Ian Paisley. The Good Friday agreement laid down the basis for power-sharing, but it also allowed the space for the most recent elections – triggered by McGuiness’s decision to resign – where the republicans gained the upper-hand for the first time. This situation combined with the potential for a referendum means Ireland may be closer to reunification than it has been for decades.
So we might say Martin McGuinness won more gains than he lost in the end. For the first time, the balance seems to be shifting in favour of nationalism, and the shift away from sectarian violence to democratic consent may have created the pre-conditions for Irish reunification. Not only do the demographics seem to favour it, but the conditions of peace allow the erosion of the strict Catholic-Protestant divide. If this continues, the dream of a united Ireland may well be fulfilled in our lifetimes.