Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, ex deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and ex IRA leader, has died. He played a hugely influential role in the long armed struggle against the Unionist and British state and in negotiating the subsequent 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended the war. For the former the British media and politicians of all the Westminster parties relentlessly vilified him. For the latter he was praised and even received the jokes of Ian Paisley and the smiles of HM the Queen.
As a young working class Derry Catholic he witnessed the brutal suppression of a peaceful Civil Rights march by the Royal Ulster Constabulary in 1968, an event that first highlighted and widely publicised the oppression of Catholics in the six counties. McGuinness joined first the Official and then the Provisional IRA, when the latter proved able and willing to defend the nationalist areas of Belfast against murderous Orange pogromists. A Labour government sent in British troops ostensibly to keep the warring sides apart. It was not long before 14 unarmed protesters were mown down by the British parachute regiment in 1972. This was also witnessed by McGuinness, by now second in command of the Derry IRA.
The wanton violence from loyalists and the British state which forced Catholics and Republicans to defend themselves in these early days is of course not part of the narrative of Thatcher’s attack dog Norman Tebbit, when he described McGuinness as “a coward and a murderer”. Modern day Tory leader Theresa May has to be more circumspect by praising his “defining role in leading the Republican movement away from violence” whilst, of course, not condoning his earlier activities. Hardly surprising since the Provisionals nearly succeeded in blowing up Margaret Thatcher in the middle of the Miners’ Strike in 1984.
When the British condemn McGuinness’ early IRA activities – falsely claiming that the IRA killed “thousands” and was solely responsible for ‘the Troubles’ – they slyly ignore the fact that if it wasn’t for his leading role in the IRA in these years then there would not have been a Good Friday Agreement. Their narrative ignores too the inbuilt discrimination against Catholics in housing, jobs and even voting that permeated the ‘Northern Ireland’ state.
They do not remind us of the fact that the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) bludgeoned the non-violent Civil Rights Movement off the streets, thus proving that an unarmed and peaceful struggle would never achieve civil rights. They conveniently forget the loyalist mobs that burned large numbers of Catholics in Belfast out of their homes. Is it surprising that people then started to resist and defend themselves? Citizen’s Defence Committees sprang up where the state refused to defend them. The IRA grew out of this struggle and waged a justifiable war against British occupation.
Last but not least they ‘forget’ too that Tory governments under Heath and Thatcher did nothing to force the Unionists to grant democratic rights which were the norm in mainland Britain. And a Labour government under Harold Wilson backed down on enforcing a power sharing executive in Stormont in the face of a reactionary general strike by Protestant workers.
It is true that the Provisional’s aim of a united Ireland failed. It is also true that a guerrilla war, not to mention a senseless bombing campaign, was never by itself going to remove the British. McGuinness eventually realised this and against the backdrop of war weariness conned many into believing that Sinn Fein could secure a constitutional path to remove the border. This path has also failed.
The Good Friday Agreement copper fastened partition, accepted the Unionist veto over a united Ireland and produced a Stormont of scandals and sectarianism. However it did achieve a number of the reforms originally demanded by the civil rights movement, plus the power sharing the Orangemen had brought down in 1974, which would never have happened without the long and bitter struggles of the 1970s and 1980s.
When he took up his deputy first minister’s position in the British administration his sell out of Republican ideals was complete. Support for the hated RUC – now renamed the Police Service of Northern Ireland – shaking hands with the Queen, deriding real Irish republicans as traitors, encouraging informers, all this and more to show his new colours. The implementation of draconian austerity alongside the reactionary bigots of the Democratic Unionist Party showed the true anti working class nature of the power-sharing executive.
But this turnaround was implicit from the beginning in militant armed struggle Republicanism. After all it happened before in the 1920s. By rejecting the working class as the key driving force that could unite Ireland, free it from British rule and make it socialist; by rejecting mass class struggle as the means to this goal, by preferring an urban guerrilla war strategy to armed defence militias in the nationalist areas, they made a surrender inevitable. The young Martin McGuinness would doubtless have harshly condemned the man of his last years. That was both his tragedy and his crime.