Dr Philip McGarry: The terrorism of McGuinness and others was not '˜mindless' - it was mindful

Last week, we witnessed the bizarre juxtaposition of the national media and political establishment going into complete overdrive following the murder of four people in London by a man armed with a car and two knives, alongside a dramatically different response to the death of Martin McGuinness.

Friday, 31st March 2017, 1:56 am
Updated Tuesday, 9th May 2017, 8:21 pm
Bloodied and shaken, Tom McFarlane is led away from the scene of the bombed Abercorn Bar by two women in 1972. Picture Pacemaker

Mr McGuinness, as outlined in Saturday’s News Letter by Ed Moloney, was responsible for so much more suffering.

While Islamists have killed only 57 people in the UK the IRA claimed over 1,770 victims.

Whereas Khalid Masood and Michael Adebolajo (who killed Gunner Lee Rigby in 2013) fortunately had no access to firearms or explosives, the IRA had a large arsenal of sophisticated weaponry and the technical capacity to carry out operations at the heart of government, such as the Brighton bombing and the mortar attack on Downing Street.

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Martin McGuinness in Londonderry helping carry the coffin of IRA man Charles English in 1985. Picture Pacemaker

In truth Masood, variously described as ‘a maniac’, ‘sick and depraved’ and (my favourite mindless insult) ‘mindless’, posed no fundamental threat to British democracy.

The IRA, arguably, did.

It is instructive to note that 30 years ago the IRA and the loyalist paramilitaries were routinely described as ‘ maniacs’, ‘crazy’, ‘blood - thirsty’ or ‘psychopaths’.

This was nonsense. Politically motivated violence/terrorism is by definition mindful; it is designed to achieve a political end.

The aftermath of the loyalis bomb blast at McGurk's bar in North Queen Street, Belfast in 1971. Phot: PA/PA Wire

Few paramilitaries are mentally ill; indeed the mentally ill would make highly ineffective paramilitaries.

Everyone loves a narrative, and that of the ‘bad‘ man becoming a ‘good’ man is universally compelling.

This was the major theme of much of last week’s commentary. This is perhaps rather insulting to Martin Mc Guinness as it implies that the 22 year old who met Willie Whitelaw in London was a thoughtless, violent ‘Paddy’, who was somehow transformed into a totally different Gandhi-type figure.

In fact he was always a thoughtful, intelligent strategic thinker who understood that every current generation of physical force nationalists is roundly condemned, by people who simultaneously condone the previous generation who did exactly the same things!

Dr Philip McGarry, consultant psychiatrist and Alliance Party membe

Mr McGuinness illustrated this himself by persistently condemning the ‘New IRA’ as ‘criminals’ for attacking police officera and shooting young men in the legs.

I have been a consultant psychiatrist since 1991, for much of that time in West Belfast. I did see a few patients who had suffered ill treatment by the army and police.

However this was overwhelmingly dwarfed by the number I saw who were shot or beaten by republican paramilitaries, which were – in a truly Orwellian phrase – deemed by the two governments to be ‘on ceasefire’. And we think Donald Trump invented ‘alternative facts’!

It is entirely correct that Northern Ireland, prior to 1969 was in many ways a partially sectarian Protestant state; equally the Republic was a partially sectarian Catholic state.

Martin McGuinness in Londonderry helping carry the coffin of IRA man Charles English in 1985. Picture Pacemaker

However no respectable independent body has ever argued nor could argue that the violence of the loyalists and republicans was a legitimate or remotely proportionate response to those wrongs.

It is deeply regrettable that it took so long for that basic concept to be accepted, and it should have us hanging our heads in shame that we had to endure the Abercorn bar, McGurks bar, Enniskillen, the Greysteel massacre and so many other relentless, tawdry killings over so many years.

We should indeed be thankful that large scale violence is unlikely ever to return. Two cheers for that. But the price must not be a psychological amnesia about the past, nor a ‘’post- truth’ rewriting of history.

Our young people must not be brought up to believe that the violence was other than totally wrong.

To murder human beings and secretly bury the bodies, to cut a man’s throat because he happens to be a Catholic, to use men as human bombs; these are such obviously foul and cruel deeds that no society can function properly without openly acknowledging and dealing with them.

Germany is now possibly the world’s leading democracy, specifically because it has never stopped taking responsibility for what its people did, and learning from it.

The aftermath of the loyalis bomb blast at McGurk's bar in North Queen Street, Belfast in 1971. Phot: PA/PA Wire

One of David Cameron’s finest moments was his statement in the House of Commons on the launch of the Saville report that Bloody Sunday was ‘unjustified and unjustifiable’.

This had the virtue of being simple, clear and honest, and it made a genuine, immediate and lasting impact.

In the wake of the many generous and warm tributes paid from across the spectrum last week to the contribution made by Martin McGuinness in his later years, is it conceivable that Sinn Fein could now state, without equivocation, that the violence of the IRA was unjustified and unjustifiable?

That would be a real contribution to peace.

• Dr Philip McGarry, whose younger brother is the comedian Tim, is a consultant psychiatrist in Belfast, who worked in the west of the city for 18 years and is a member of the Alliance Party

Dr Philip McGarry, consultant psychiatrist and Alliance Party membe