The Sinn Féin politician died early on Tuesdayby David McKittrick / March 21, 2017 / Leave a comment
The IRA that Martin McGuinness joined as a young man in the early 1970s didn’t do relationships: it did bullets and bombs. Today, McGuinness died aged 66 from a heart condition. It is therefore worth reflecting on what changed—and his role in bringing about that change.
To most in the IRA’s ranks politics was a dirty word: politicians were the lowest of the low, a contemptible species prepared to compromise and sell out ancient republican purities.
The IRA had few important relationships in those early days. One was its links to nostalgic Irish-Americans who would toss dollars into collecting tins in Brooklyn bars. A few of them went much further, helping arrange a flow of weapons from New York to Ireland.
Another international link was with Gaddafi’s Libya, since the Colonel was willing to send arms consignments to Ireland. Neither the American nor the Libyan relationship was based on much more than anti-British sentiment and the willingness to arm Britain’s opponents, but those guns helped sustain the early days of the troubles.
Martin McGuinness moved rapidly up through the ranks of the IRA so that in 1972 he and his close associate Gerry Adams were included in a high-level delegation which met a British cabinet minister in Chelsea.
The meeting was a complete flop, the IRA concluding that this foray into discussion and negotiation was a waste of time. After that the Northern Ireland conflict continued uninterrupted for more than a decade and a half, until McGuinness and Adams came to think in terms of relationships.
The first important rapport was that between the two men, who together dominated the republican movement. They and others started to feel that the conflict could go on endlessly, that the British army could not defeat them but that neither could they defeat the army.
Their close alliance was more or less unchallengeable within republicanism, so that they felt able to convince the more militant elements in the ranks of the need for innovation. Adams was seen as primarily political, McGuinness as the unflinching militarist whom hardliners could rely on not to let him go too far.
The McGuinness-Adams axis, forged in war, continued in peace. They absorbed the unwelcome reality that, with victory unachievable, the conflict was bound to end with political negotiations. As McGuinness once put it, republicans “had to face up to the reality that, as in any conflict situation throughout the world, there would have to be negotiations.” In other words, a sense of realpolitik began to replace the aim of total victory.
The evolution of a political strategy took place over years, with the two slowly building up a clandestine web of contacts, reaching out to the British and Irish governments and other sources. In other words, they had come to appreciate the value of relationships. Their first important port of call was with non-violent nationalist leader John Hume, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who lived not far from McGuinness in Londonderry and who was prepared to break the long-standing taboo against talking to those involved in violence.
Contact followed with both the London and Dublin governments, at first surreptitiously in monasteries and in backstreet houses in Londonderry.
But the fact of the talks inevitably leaked out and when Tony Blair came to power the two republicans formed a relationship with Blair himself, with scores of encounters taking place in Downing Street, the Commons and at Chequers. Blair was impressed with them, saying that they negotiated with immense skill, and admitted in his memoirs that he “came to like them both greatly—probably more than I should have, if truth be told.” His chief of staff Jonathan Powell found the republicans rather less likeable, however, writing of “the slightly threatening bearded face of Adams and the clear, chilling eyes of McGuinness.”
Despite the chilling eyes, however, the government and the republicans established enough trust to do serious business, leading to the historic IRA ceasefire of 1994.
In the years that followed two startling new sets of relationships were established which astonished the world. First McGuinness agreed to serve in government as deputy to one of his arch-enemies, the loyalist firebrand Rev Ian Paisley: the two got on so well together personally that they were christened “the Chuckle Brothers.”
Next, McGuinness struck up a relationship with the Queen, shaking her hand several times and on one occasion dining at Windsor Castle.
All this took many years and survived many crises and tense moments. But the peace process brought huge gains and saved many lives, as McGuinness learnt to build relationships rather than waging war.