John Cushnahan: I lived in the Falls as the Troubles erupted but a deprived background is no excuse for joining the IRA

John Cushnahan with his family in his Alliance Party days
John Cushnahan with his family in his Alliance Party days

Last week Dr Philip McGarry, a psychiatrist and Alliance Party member, wrote in the News Letter that IRA violence was not “a legitimate or remotely proportionate” response to the problems in Northern Ireland before the Troubles (see link below). Here, the former Alliance leader John Cushnahan is similarly critical of attempts to justify terrorism:

When Martin McGuinness died, leading political figures and commentators rushed to pass judgement on his political legacy.

Martin McGuinness carrying the coffin of dead IRA man Charles English in August 1985, with others including Martin Galvin. Picture Pacemaker

Martin McGuinness carrying the coffin of dead IRA man Charles English in August 1985, with others including Martin Galvin. Picture Pacemaker

He was variously described as a “statesman of the Troubles”, “a peacemaker” and “a man of reconciliation”.

When I heard these tributes, my immediate thoughts were with the families whose loved ones had been callously and brutally murdered by the organisation in which he had been a commander for three decades.

However, I became even more annoyed when several of these figures in their eulogies to him attempted to excuse his use of violence because he came from a deprived Catholic background whose community had been badly treated by the unionist majority since the foundation of the Northern Ireland state.

While this is a factual description of his origins, it did not provide any moral justification or excuse for the violent path he chose to follow.

John Cushnahan, former Fine Gael MEP and Alliance Party leader, at the annual Alliance conference in 2008. Photo by Jonathan Porter/Presseye.com

John Cushnahan, former Fine Gael MEP and Alliance Party leader, at the annual Alliance conference in 2008. Photo by Jonathan Porter/Presseye.com

I shared the same background as McGuinness and Adams. I was a working-class Catholic who was born in the ‘pound Loney’ in the lower Falls area of west Belfast.

I lived in west Belfast throughout the 1960s and early 1970s when the Troubles began. I was involved in the campaign for civil rights. While some of my peers also joined the IRA, many supported the SDLP and others such as myself chose the politics of reconciliation and together with Protestants of similar views we supported the Alliance Party.

We all made our respective choices.

As several weeks have elapsed since his untimely passing, people should now be able to take a more objective and detached view of Martin McGuinness’s actual legacy which also involves analysing the role and actions of the Provisional IRA in which he was a central figure.

Ian Paisley, seen here in 1980, helped bring down the 1974 power-sharing executive, and then agreed to share power with Sinn Fein more than 30 years later. Picture Pacemaker Press

Ian Paisley, seen here in 1980, helped bring down the 1974 power-sharing executive, and then agreed to share power with Sinn Fein more than 30 years later. Picture Pacemaker Press

Those that founded the Provisional IRA in 1969 claimed that they had done so to protect the Catholic community from sectarian attack by loyalist extremists at the beginning of the Troubles – yet by the time the troubles ended, the IRA had murdered more Catholics than any other party to the conflict.

In fact, they were responsible for the deaths of over half of all the victims of the Troubles including many sectarian atrocities such as the Kingsmill and La Mon massacres and the Enniskillen cenotaph bombing.

It is therefore regrettable that Sinn Fein including their current leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill enthusiastically commemorate their 30-year long campaign of terror.

Following the recent Assembly elections in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein boasted about the mandate that they had received and demanded equality and recognition for that mandate yet they conveniently forget how the IRA had treated the mandate of other democratically elected politicians in Britain and Ireland whom they assassinated during their campaign of terror because they disagreed with their political views.

Edgar Graham, Ulster Unionist MLA and Queen's University lecturer, shot dead at point blank range by the IRA in December 1983 at the edge of the university

Edgar Graham, Ulster Unionist MLA and Queen's University lecturer, shot dead at point blank range by the IRA in December 1983 at the edge of the university

In 1981 86-year-old former unionist speaker of Stormont Sir Norman Stronge (and his son) were murdered; Rev Robert Bradford (Ulster Unionist MP for South Belfast) and Kenneth Campbell the 29-year-old caretaker of the community hall in which he was conducting his political surgery were also murdered in 1981; in 1983 Edgar Graham (Ulster Unionist MLA) whose intellect and liberalism they feared was murdered; Conservative MP Sir Anthony Berry and four members of the British Conservative Party were murdered in the Brighton conference bombing in 1984 which also could have wiped out half the British government cabinet and in 1990 Ian Gow (Conservative MP and adviser to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher) was murdered.

To justify, or excuse, or commemorate or gloss over the atrocities carried out by the IRA while Martin McGuinness was a key figure is not only a barrier to achieving genuine reconciliation, it is positively dangerous as the glorification of violence and those who espoused it could equally influence future generations to resort to using it in the future if there was another constitutional crisis.

In assessing the legacy of Martin McGuinness, political figures and commentators are engaging in the same type of selective amnesia that they displayed when commenting on the death of Ian Paisley – the other half of Northern Ireland’s “Chuckle Brothers”.

I applaud the courage that both displayed in sharing power with one another in the respective last decades of each of their lives.

The people of these islands owe them a huge debt for the leap of faith that they both displayed at a critical time in re-establishing the imaginative political experiment that had been first introduced in 1974.

The power-sharing executive of that year was brought down by combination of increased IRA violence and the UWC strike led by Ian Paisley and loyalist paramilitaries.

The aftermath of the IRA La Mon explosion and fire in which 12 people were murdered in 1978. Picture Pacemaker

The aftermath of the IRA La Mon explosion and fire in which 12 people were murdered in 1978. Picture Pacemaker

I regret to say that thousands of people needlessly died in the interim before Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness embraced what had already been on offer in 1974.

However, there is no doubt that by eventually agreeing to share power with one another, they copper fastened the peace process and ensured its continued survival against any future attempts to wreck it by extremists in either community.

If their respective successors, Michelle O’Neill and Arlene Foster show the same sort of determination in overcoming major obstacles and resurrect power-sharing structures which lay the foundation for a permanent peace then it may provide some measure of atonement for what Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley did in the previous three decades of their political careers.

• John Cushnahan was Alliance Party leader 1984-87, and later a Fine Gael MEP for Munster

Dr Philip McGarry: The terrorism of McGuinness and others was not mindless – it was mindful