Neither Conservatives nor Unionists nor most of us who are both will mourn the death of Martin McGuinness. He was responsible for too much murder, bloodshed and terror for that to be possible. There will be a contrast today between the more gushing obituaries of him, and the space they gain in print and online, and the cramped quotes from the relatives of those for whose deaths he was responsible. Whether he was a member of the IRA’s army council during the 1980s or later is disputed. But he was undoubtedly its leader in Londonderry during the early 1970s, worked closely with it throughout, and was convicted twice of terror offences (not in Britain, but in Ireland). He had been had caught in a car containing 250lb of explosives and nearly 5,000 rounds of ammunition the first time round.
It is none the less the case that McGuinness was in the forefront of the push within the IRA to bring terror to an end. He carried more weight within the organisation that the co-face of Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams. It has even been claimed that he became a British agent, although those pushing the allegation have largely been former IRA members opposed to the settlement in Northern Ireland. It is certainly significant that violence in Londonderry eased before violence in Belfast or, say, Tyrone: soldiers in much of the province were still wearing helmets when those in the city had been able safely to downgrade to berets. And so it is that the former terrorist godather became the Queen’s second Minister in Northern Ireland – precisely because the IRA base had confidence that he would push hard for republican interests within a democratic framework.
“I am an unapologetic Irish republican and I value very much the contribution Queen Elizabeth has made to the peace process and to reconciliation,” he said after what turned out to be his final meeting with her. Had his health not faded, and there been a different First Minister than Arlene Foster in place, Northern Ireland’s government might not have collapsed recently: he had excellent working relations with Ian Paisley and good ones with Peter Robinson. Unionist politicians in Westminster and the province found him straightforward to deal with, an effective colleague, and skilled at keeping Northern Ireland’s political show on the road. Was it necessary for its government to be divided up between the DUP and Sinn Fein in the first place? Did Tony Blair strengthen sectarianism by concessions to republicans – thus destroying the moderate partnership of the UUP’s David Trimble and the SDLP’s Seamus Mallon?
The answers will depend on the perspective of those giving them. What can safely be said is that McGuinness concluded that the armalite, far from helping Sinn Fein pile up votes at the ballot box, had become an obstacle to it doing so. Whether he believed that republicanism could better achieve its aim of a United Ireland by democratic means, or privately came to the view that Northern Ireland’s nationalists had been right all along in believing so, is unknown to others than his close family and circle. Either way, he took the journey that many a terrorist leader has taken before him. And so it was that the butcher’s apprentice who “had engaged in paramilitary activity” on the day of Bloody Sunday (in the words of the Savile Report) became, 40 or so years on, the white-tie clad Minister at a Windsor Castle banquet, all present and correct for the toast to the Queen.