The violence of Martin McGuinness should always be looked at alongside the peaceful approach of John Hume

(September 2020)

Wednesday night’s hour-long RTÉ documentary, ‘McGuinness,’ was a triumph for all involved in making it.

Written by Harry McGee of The Irish Times, it was a gripping account of the life of one of the most important political figures in modern Irish history.

While Gerry Adams has been the undisputed leader of the Republican movement since the 80s, his junior colleague Martin McGuinness was always more compelling.

Unlike Adams, McGuinness was not born into the IRA, and the oversized role which Derry played in the early days of the civil rights movement coupled with the appalling slaughter on Bloody Sunday adds to the sympathy which ordinary people felt towards him.

A wide array of leading figures in the Peace Process were featured, some who clearly revered him and others like the DUP’s Gregory Campbell who were deeply hostile.

Yet the documentary failed to give a complete picture.

This is not the fault of the producers – after all, the documentary is titled ‘McGuinness,’ not ‘The IRA’ or ‘The Troubles.’

It is aimed at shedding light on one individual, and this it does well. But important aspects of what occurred in Northern Ireland over the last half-century were glossed over.

In the process, what we saw resembled too closely the revisionist view of the conflict which the wealthiest and most dangerous party in Irish politics ceaselessly works to propagate. 

The timeline and potted history is as follows:

In the late 1960s, disenfranchised Irish Catholics living in a bigoted state began a powerful people’s movement for civil rights. (This much is true)

Faced with no alternative (here the lies begin), a group of Irish revolutionaries – the moral equals of those who founded the Irish State – took the fight to the British Army and RUC.

After decades of armed struggle, courageous leaders such as Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were finally able to bring the recalcitrant British Government to the negotiating table.

Thanks to their courage, and some minor assistance provided by the previously uncooperative John Hume et al, the newly-created Peace Process ensured that Irish unity could now be achieved by non-violent means.

Sinn Féin have become the most powerful force in Irish politics on the back of this narrative.

This historical narrative rests on certain building blocks: if one underlying assumption or component of the argument gives way, the structure collapses.

The most important underlying claim is that a non-violent path towards changing Northern Ireland did not exist before the Good Friday Agreement.

This is an absolute falsehood.

In 1973, moderate nationalists, moderate unionists and the British and Irish governments signed up to the Sunningdale Agreement which required power-sharing in the North, along with the creation of a 32-county Council of Ireland aimed at promoting peaceful cooperation between North and South.

McGuinness and the IRA rejected this outright – as that hardline loyalists who worked to destroy Sunningdale and prevent a workable solution from taking root. After four years of hellish violence, the men of violence refused to give up.

More than a decade later, the formulation of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 showed that the British and Irish governments – backed by most of the Northern Catholic community – showed that a peaceful path forward was still possible.

McGuinness and the IRA rejected this outright as well, along with the intransigent unionists.

After another decade of needless killing, the IRA leadership – with Adams and McGuinness at its heart – was willing to accept less than what was on offer at Sunningdale a quarter of a century earlier, provided that hundreds of Provisional IRA members would walk free from jail.

Of course, it also ensured that the Sinn Féin leadership would play a central role in the new order.

There are other parts of the IRA/SF version of history which need to be challenged too, but which got hardly a mention in ‘McGuinness’ – a documentary which gives far too much credit to Adams and McGuinness for leading their comrades to the negotiating table, as if they had been negotiating in the late 90s from a position of strength.

In the early 1970s, the IRA’s campaign was an insurgency, and there was a real possibility that the British Government could be forced to do what a large segment of British public opinion wanted and withdraw from Ireland.

Twenty years later, there was no such possibility, as the security forces had gained the upper hand. ‘No-go’ areas were a distant memory and the IRA’s freedom of movement and action in majority Catholic areas had been greatly curtailed, even in the previously-impregnable South Armagh.

The IRA of the 1990s was heavily infiltrated by the security forces, which prevented them from causing anywhere near as much damage as they had previously, as an examination of the casualties suffered by the British Army shows.

Over 100 British soldiers were killed by the IRA in 1972, for example. But in the final 18 months of the ‘war,’ after the IRA broke their ceasefire by bombing Canary Wharf in London, the same ‘army’ could only inflict two fatalities on the British army.

Faced with continuing a low-intensity and completely futile armed campaign, the IRA’s leadership chose peace. For this, Martin McGuinness deserves acknowledgement, but not gratitude.

Overall though, the greatest deficiency of ‘McGuinness’ can be summed up in one word: Hume.

The references to the real leader of Northern nationalists over several decades are brief but telling.

We are told in ‘McGuinness’ that John Hume finished well ahead of McGuinness in elections in Derry in 1982 and 1983 – results which give the lie to the notion that the IRA’s campaign had majority support behind it.

We are shown a video of McGuinness in the 80s, lamenting the fact that violence was necessary to bring about change. “I wish it could be done in another way. If someone could tell me a peaceful way to do it, then I would gladly support that. But no one has yet done that,” he says.

Of course, there was a peaceful way.

John Hume showed him that by example every day from when the civil rights struggle began, and every day McGuinness ignored it. There is even some evidence that the IRA considered murdering him because of it.

Whether this is true or not, there can be no false equivalence between a destroyer who eventually became a bridge-builder without ever renouncing his past and a person whose whole life was dedicated to bringing the people of Ireland together in peace.

Some moments in the documentary are positively chilling. 

McGuinness is shown playing with a revolver in the early 1970s, as a large group of children gather around his car.

McGuinness takes a bullet out of the chamber and shows it to them as if it were a toy. The little boys reach out their hands to touch it.

A few minutes later, interspersed with commentary about how the Derry IRA had reduced their own city centre to rubble in the early 70s, a group of IRA volunteers are shown loading a car with explosives.

McGuinness lurks menacingly a few yards back, happy not to dirty his hands. No longer an ordinary perpetrator, he is now the instigator. And foolish young men and boys will gladly do his bidding.

Ireland is at peace now. But it might not always be, particularly given that the Northern Irish state is so structurally unsound and prone to division.

In assessing the past in search for inspiration, the achievements of Martin McGuinness in the latter period of his life should be acknowledged, but they should always be juxtaposed against the example of John Hume.

When Derry’s two most famous sons are compared against another, McGuinness falls very short indeed.