Twenty years on from the start of the talks process which led to the Good Friday Agreement and a decade after Martin McGuinness became deputy first minister, why was there so much astonishment (and I can think of no other word for it) about Ian Paisley’s ‘praise’ of him; or, as Jim Allister described it, “a gushing eulogy towards IRA commander McGuinness”.
Some people accused Paisley of a form of ‘Stockholm syndrome,’ caused by the relationship between McGuinness and his father; others said that he was, ‘insulting IRA victims and turning a blind eye to the truth’; some said that he was, ‘acting like a statesman and allowing Northern Ireland to move forward’. Some even tweeted that it was actually an attack on Arlene Foster, ‘lining himself up for a leadership bid if the election goes badly for her’. My, my: I never thought I’d see the day when praising Martin McGuinness would be viewed as a strategy for winning the leadership of the DUP!
But his comments do raise a much bigger question: is it ever right to praise someone like McGuinness, while arguing that his actions over the past 20 years helped to save lives and make Northern Ireland a better place? The fact of the matter is that there wouldn’t have been an Assembly, let alone an Executive, had McGuinness (and it was him, more than anyone else) not persuaded the IRA to abandon the ‘armed struggle’ and, instead, make their case by democratic means alone. Paisley, Robinson and Foster would never have had the opportunity to be first minister (a post they’ve all loved) had McGuinness not given his personal imprimatur to a deal with them.
In saying that, I’m not praising him; I’m just making the very important point that the Assembly, along with something resembling political stability, owes much to his input since the mid-1990s. But we still come back to choices he made in the late 1960s and to personal decisions and nods-of-approval taken in his role as a key figure within the IRA. For many, many people – not all of whom were on the receiving end of IRA activity – those choices, decisions and nods-of-approval will always be unforgivable. He didn’t, they will say, ever have to join the IRA. He could, just as easily – and maybe with a more lasting impact – have deployed his obvious abilities and articulacy in either the civil rights movement or the SDLP.
He chose to join the IRA. He chose to support and justify an ‘armed struggle’. He chose, in fact, to take a path similar to the path taken by many armed groups around the world, who sought independence and national sovereignty from what they would describe as ‘some imperial yoke or another’. And, like many of the leaders of those groups, he has made the transition from ‘terrorist’ to ‘statesman.’
But when all is said and done, it was always about personal choice. He chose bloodshed while other nationalists/republicans chose the ballot box. Many people – unionists as well as nationalists – will always view that choice as unforgivable. And, in fairness, they would have the same opinion of loyalists who took a similar path.
I don’t know how Martin McGuinness feels when he looks back on his life. I don’t know if he has sleepless nights. I don’t know if he thinks about the thousands upon thousands of lives that were changed forever by a bullet fired, or a bomb planted by IRA members. I don’t know if, from the comfort of his office in Stormont Castle, he ever thought; “I could have reached this position by other means. It didn’t need the IRA to deliver all of this.”
All I know is that he made a particular and very personal choice in the late 1960s; and that the very peculiar social/political circumstances of Northern Ireland then steered him from the UK’s ‘most feared terrorist’ to a position where his retirement earns plaudits from former opponents and one-time potential targets.
I’ve said before that it’s far too early to make a judgment call on his legacy: and, as I wrote above, I’m not sure that he knows what his legacy will amount to. That he made awful choices – even if he would argue that circumstances at the time forced him to make them – is undeniable. That he was involved in very bad things is also undeniable. That he could have been a key figure in politics had he joined the SDLP – an option that was, surely, open to him at that point in late-1960s Derry – is similarly undeniable. Like a number of other people and organisations – including Ian Paisley Snr – his presence and activities were key factors in Northern Ireland from the mid-1960s onwards. What McGuinness said and did changed how our lives were lived: his impact was that significant.
Yet nearly all of those people and organisations eventually found themselves on the same page and in the same position; and, in doing so, have had another, albeit more beneficial, impact upon Northern Ireland and upon our everyday lives.
It’s not perfect. And we shouldn’t be falling over ourselves in gratitude for belated changes of hearts and cessation of past activities. But nor should we ignore the fact that the majority of people do want to keep building on the progress that has been made since the mid-1990s.
Conflict produces strange political bedfellows – none stranger than the DUP and Sinn Fein. So yes, I think Ian Paisley was right to say what he said on Thursday. It struck me as both generous and genuine. And, given the fact that unionism and republicanism need each other, his comments were also necessary at this difficult time for the political process.