The man who was Martin McGuinness is no more and has returned to God his Creator and Judge. Martin’s soul will not be judged by me.
In the democratic political realm, Martin entered the fray late in life and gave it his all and did well. Few would criticize his endeavours toward peace and prosperity in a divided society. I greatly admire his democratic political contribution.
One aspect of Martin’s non-democratic political history has been overlooked, that dark area where former paramilitaries who fought with Martin and who served long sentences on behalf of the IRA look to his life and statements for clarity on their own actions. Here Martin left an incoherent and contradictory legacy. How so? I should record that I have no difficulty saying that I was a teenage IRA volunteer for 5 years with Martin and latterly a member of the Derry Brigade Staff, bombed Derry and London and injured civilians with my bombs and letter bombs and am not proud of it.
The IRA from the period 1969-2005 is the first version of the IRA where the leadership has distanced itself from the armed struggle and its fighters, has claimed to have exited the IRA half way through the campaign or has even entirely denied membership and command and control of the IRA – leaving the many thousands of former IRA prisoners out in the cold with convictions and prison sentences that cannot be expunged. Their difficulties in finding employment and careers have not gone away.
Martin told a whopper of a lie in claiming that he left the IRA in 1974. He most certainly did not leave the IRA at that time or at any time for many years thereafter. But he claimed that he did and all of those republicans who knew that he lied did not contradict the obvious lie told both to the Bloody Sunday inquiry and to the many victims who demanded truths from him later and didn’t get them. Martin felt able to lie and to distance himself from the armed struggle by his lie because IRA membership necessarily involves constant lies. Many republicans and Sinn Fein members condoned these lies and still do.
Other IRA Army Council members have similarly chosen to distance themselves from the IRA armed struggle and its fighters by totally denying membership and leadership of the IRA and in doing so they have sold out the many young men and women who did gory deeds for them and served very long prison sentences which they are not in a position to deny. These leaders’ lies are so big that they too have succeeded in being condoned by many republicans and Sinn Fein members.
Why have these IRA leaders denied membership and control of the IRA when so many young men and women volunteers toed the IRA line of not recognising British and Irish courts and took their long prison sentences and served them and never denied IRA deeds and membership? The only possible explanation for these lying denials is that they contributed in some measure to preventing these IRA leaders serving long prison sentences for participating in and/or ordering many IRA actions. While it was ‘sound’ for the numberless young men and women volunteers to serve 15 and 20 and 25 year sentences in prison for The Cause, by the 1990s it was utterly unthinkable for the IRA leaders to serve long prison sentences who had grown so powerful, so influential and – in some cases – so wealthy and who had wives and families by then.
As the net of British informers and spies closed in on the IRA leadership in recent years, so the coincident decision was taken to sue for peace, to end the armed struggle and not only avoid any long prison sentences but also grab at the slippery reins of political power and influence in Northern Ireland, not forgetting the Northern Bank’s financial contribution that went to an unidentified golden circle within the Movement.
Not alone have Army Council members denied IRA membership and activities, but also at local level suddenly a cast of IRA volunteers who formerly did not recognise the courts that sentenced them began legal cases in those courts to void their convictions and gain compensation from the British legal system. Suddenly, a two-tier IRA was created – the IRA who denied ever shooting or bombing anybody or knowing anything about these actions and who could not conceive of ever serving long prison sentences versus The Rest – the IRA volunteers young men and women who definitely did shoot and bomb and serve long prison sentences for The Cause. What an outcome to the great Armed Struggle! The leaders dumping any connection to it as they nestled in Downing Street and The White House and the cannon fodder bottom-feeder volunteers saddled with prison sentences and convictions for the rest of their lives.
These huge lies grew from a lot of other smaller big lies. The IRA lied about the Birmingham Pub bombings. The IRA lied about The Disappeared. Suddenly nobody in the IRA leadership knew anything about any shootings or bombings. Nobody knew who planted the Claudy bombs or why. Nobody knew who shot Jean McConville or Jeffrey Agate of Du Pont in Derry, or who shot any female census collector, alleged informers or lied to their mothers or who chained Pasty Gillespie to a bomb on the Buncrana Road in Derry and pressed a button to blow him and five soldiers to smithereens. Nobody knows where the remains of the tortured and executed Captain Robert Nairac are so that he can be granted a Catholic burial. Such sudden onset of amnesia or shame in the higher leadership!
How then are we to treat Martin’s latter interview boast that he was proud of his IRA activities? Can the former Minister of Education truly have wished to convince young people that he was proud of a series of actions so horrible that even now the IRA cannot find any volunteers or leaders to admit to having done them? Bloody Friday, La Mon, Kingsmill, Enniskillen, Birmingham, Warrington, the endless list of shames including the long and forgotten list of children killed by bombs and bullets. Suddenly the IRA is bereft of leaders willing to step forward to take responsibility for their commanded actions. Is it gross shame or fear of minimal post Good Friday Agreement prosecution or both?
But the real question is how the wider community has come to support a version of the IRA that has been such a lying, dishonourable organisation whose former leaders have been caught in such absurd and embarrassing denials.
One legacy of Martin and the IRA is that the moral compass of the Northern republican community in particular has been so damaged by 30 years of IRA armed struggle, horror and lies that its former ability to call a lie a lie and an injustice an injustice has been degraded. The Northern republican community condones these grand lies because it has been conditioned to do so.
It is necessary to tell young people in all of Ireland that it is truly impossible to be proud of the activities of the IRA, or of the activities of loyalist paramilitaries, just as it is impossible to be proud of British paratroopers or undercover servicemen killing civilians on any occasion.
Away from his IRA past, Martin was a personable and charismatic man, but his dying boast that he was proud of his IRA activities must be seen as the lie it surely was, in common with the other grand lies put forth by the leadership of the IRA that never was. And that is the saddest part of his and the Movement’s legacy – the secrets too shameful to be told and the grand lies that masquerade unchallenged as truth in a society where the moral compass is awry.
In appreciation of Gerry Adams’ Channel 4 Bible show some years ago, it might not be inappropriate to recall Psalm 23: “Who shall climb the mountain of the Lord? Who shall stand in his holy place? The man with clean hands and pure heart, who desires not worthless things, who has not sworn so as to deceive his neighbour.”
[First published in The Irish News, Belfast, April 20, 2017]
[Re-published in The News Letter, Belfast, May 4, 2017]