McGuinness – a man who has been on a very long journey

Morning View
Morning View

Martin McGuinness’s political career is at an end.

And what a career it has been.

The Sinn Fein deputy first minister was an IRA commander from the 1970s, and at the helm of Sinn Fein when it began to contest elections in the 1980s (the fabled ballot box and armalite strategy).

For more than 40 years, Mr McGuinness has been one of the most powerful men in Northern Ireland. The idea of sharing power with such a person would have been unthinkable – laughable, nightmarish, etc – for unionists in the 1970s. But that is what it came to, and at the behest of threats of worse from London if they did not. Unionist blunders over the decades contributed to that scenario. A failure to engage with nationalism in the 1960s and 70s led to enforced concessions later (although IRA terror had made engagement harder).

Mr McGuinness, from the day he entered David Trimble’s cabinet in 1998, was inclined to be self-righteous. He has been notably secretive about his role in the IRA while demanding – up until days ago – full accountability of a British state which, he knows, was nothing like as brutal as republicans imply. Had it been, he would have been dead long before 1972 was out, let alone free and a statesman half a century after that.

There will be people, such as perhaps relatives of elderly British soldiers who face trial (shamefully) in the coming months, who feel only contempt for the fact that this man will have his frailties cared for by the UK’s lavishly funded NHS while basking in the tributes that were flowing last night.

We do not propose to join in that adulation. We might even campaign in coming months for IRA-Sinn Fein men to be questioned, arrested, charged and tried, now that the old age and health of ex security forces is not a mitigating factor (whatever they might have done wrong in split second shootings, it is of nothing compared to calculating IRA godathers).

But that is for another day. Now is a time when it is fair to record that Mr McGuinness was one of the most pragmatic members of Sinn Fein. Power-sharing might not have been possible without his twin ability to inspire his followers and to make concessions – the latter often considerable.

If you judge him by his body language when he was at the top of the Stormont tree, not his lip service to tired republican rhetoric, he did try to make devolution work – government at Stormont under the UK. He tried to strike a rapport with the unionists with whom he had to work closely. He turned emphatically against dissident murderers.

Mr McGuinness embarked on a long journey, a long time ago. There is a sense that he didn’t take it as far as he might have wanted to do. The story of that journey has not fully been told, perhaps because he was unwilling or felt unable to tell it.

And however disagreeable Mr McGuinness was to unionists, they could have been dealing with much worse – either people who are less talented, and thus less confident to strike sensible deals, or less flexible and so less inclined to do so.