Reporting on Martin McGuinness’ death says something about modern sensibilities

News rolled in yesterday that Martin McGuinness had died. You can read reports here, here and here amongst others.

Most of my academic work has been focused on Northern Ireland. It was a major focus of my undergraduate History & Politics degree, the political development of Loyalism formed the basis of my dissertation and my Master’s thesis focused upon the role of Evangelicals in the politics of Northern Ireland. Since then, I have had an article published in the Evangelical Review of Theology & Politics on Evangelical interpretations of The Troubles and the role of eschatology in forming their views. So, I am fairly au fait with the goings on in the region in both the political and theological arenas.

What has been interesting about the reporting is that whilst there is a recognition of McGuinness’ past, there seems to be a disproportionate focus upon the last decade of his life. Everybody seems willing to acknowledge his one time provisional IRA commandership, and his subsequent rise to become the Chief of Staff on the Army Council, but they are also keen to emphasise his role as a peacemaker and chief negotiator for Sinn Fein during the peace process. Much is made of his willingness to enter a power-sharing government as Deputy First Minister alongside the Rev Dr Ian Paisley with much talk, even from Paisley’s son, about whatever occurred in the past it is how one finishes one’s life that is important.

I find such sentiments commendable but misplaced. As a Christian, I am all for the view that ending well is vitally important. Whilst it is true that McGuinness laid down his weapons and sought to bring about his aims by constitutional means by the end of his life, it is telling that he at no point repented of his previous actions. We have a man who did not disavow the violent means he once propagated but one who, for strategic reasons, decided to change course when an opportunity to further his cause constitutionally arose.

Let us just be clear what led Martin McGuinness on the road to peace. The IRA had been infiltrated by British intelligence to the point that it was going to implode and the majority of members brought to book. Around the same time, Tony Blair swept to power in 1997 and Sinn Fein relentlessly targeted that government for assurances of immunity for those involved in terrorist activities and other such unjust concessions. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement provided a great opportunity for McGuinness to exploit his aims constitutionally.

Having been a key player within the negotiations, Sinn Fein portrayed the agreement subsequently as a sell out for Republicanism and portrayed themselves as more authentically Republican than their peaceable SDLP counterparts. This led to huge electoral gains for Sinn Fein who, at the same time as agreeing to decommission IRA weaponry (a reality questioned by the DUP and undermined by various weapons cache discoveries), framed the GFA as falling short. Whilst the DUP made similar hay with the GFA from a Unionist stand point, and made huge electoral gains from the dominant Ulster Unionists nigh on wiping them out as an electoral force, they were not party to the negotiations and thus rejected the GFA before, during and after. Sinn Fein, by contrast, were party to the negotiations and central to the agreement yet characterised it as a poor deal for Republicans and overtook the SDLP as the dominant Nationalist/Republican party.

All of this is to say that Martin McGuinness did not choose the path of peace because he renounced his violent past. At no point did McGuinness ever apologise for the death and destruction he both ordered and carried out. His move into peaceful constitutional politics coincided precisely with the infiltration of the IRA and subsequent moves to prosecute its members. The GFA provided early release for those currently serving prison sentences for terror activities and led to cover for those subsequently known to be involved. The opportunity to court the Blair government led to “comfort letters” offering immunity to those on the run from the law and other such unjust deals. McGuinness spied an opportunity for Sinn Fein both during and following the GFA to meaningfully work towards his goal of 32-county Irish Unification. It was this opportunism – both to avoid the rule of law and to meaningfully advance IRA aims constitutionally – that led Martin McGuinness down the road to peace.

Nobody can deny that Martin McGuinness choosing to follow the path of peace was a major part of the peace that now holds in Northern Ireland. Nonetheless, it is also impossible to deny that McGuinness was a major reason a peace process was required in the first instance. When Julie Hambleton – who lost her sister, Maxine, in an IRA car bombing – was asked her views on Martin McGuinness speaking at a peace lecture in Warrington, she replied that it was like ‘asking Myra Hindley to give a talk on child protection’. Praising a man who shot and bombed, and ordered many more shootings and bombings, both within Northern Ireland and on the British mainland, and who remains unrepentant about the so-called need for violent struggle at the time, is like applauding a wife beater for finally deciding, after many decades, to stop battering his wife. It is not praiseworthy that McGuinness gave up armed conflict, it is shameful that he ever took it up.

It is also worth contrasting the comment following Ian Paisley’s death to that surrounding Martin McGuinness. McGuinness was a man who engaged in violent killings and yet, because many sympathise with both his wider political views and his specific political aims for Northern Ireland, he is lauded as a man of peace. Ian Paisley, who never killed anybody and – despite the efforts over many years of some to implicate him – has never been linked with violent conflict and has consistently denounced it on all sides. Nonetheless, many still viewed Paisley as a ‘dangerous man’ and heaped opprobrium upon him (see here, for example). McGuiness killed many people, yet because he held the “right” views is lauded as a peacemaker. Paisley, who never killed anybody, held the “wrong” views and was excoriated. Whilst I rarely agreed with Ian Paisley politically, what first fired my interest in Northern Ireland was why a man so openly against violence was treated with scorn whilst those who openly espoused it were lauded. I found myself in the rather uncomfortable position of seeking to defend a man with whom I disagreed politically yet who often did not deserve the derision he received, especially when compared with those actively encouraging violent conflict.

As one who sits happily on the left of the political spectrum and who takes no ideological view on the position of Northern Ireland (save a constitutional one that says a 2/3 majority view within the region should prevail), the comparison is instructive of a modern way of thinking. A man who holds the right views but behaves atrociously is seen as more palatable than a man whose views do not chime with mainstream thought but who never engaged in,  nor encouraged, violent activity and consistently denounced it throughout his career. As I have mentioned before (see here), it is a blindspot that is a major problem. It is a view that says I will justify unconscionable behaviour when it is in the name of a cause to which I am sympathetic. It is this same mindset that happily sees authoritarian tendencies in the government close down speech I don’t like, behaviour I find objectionable and all manner of things simply because it is a view or behaviour of which I happen to disapprove. It only ever seems to concern some when these same tendencies close down words and behaviours that affect my freedom to say and do the things I want to say and do. We have now reached a point where supposedly right thought trumps any sense of right action.

I would love us to assess the life and work of Martin McGuinness with an understanding that thoughts and actions must be assessed together. Hagiography ought not to be the order of the day.