Sam McBride: Having despised him, some unionists may soon be nostalgic for McGuinness

Martin McGuinness, pictured with Peter Robinson, was in his latter years firmly committed to making Stormont work. Now that appears far less clear
Martin McGuinness, pictured with Peter Robinson, was in his latter years firmly committed to making Stormont work. Now that appears far less clear

It once would have been unthinkable, and even today virtually no unionist politician will publicly say it, but there may very soon come a time when unionism’s political leaders look back on Martin McGuinness’s final years with something approaching nostalgia.

Just as such a suggestion about Ian Paisley would have seemed absurd for most of his life, yet Sinn Fein now holds up his time in office as a model of harmonious government, so an IRA commander who for most of his life embodied what unionists feared and hated may in death be remembered more fondly.

IRA victims will certainly feel no warmth for what went before – McGuinness’s time on the IRA Army Council coincided with some of the Troubles’ worst atrocities.

And even after they accepted that Mr McGuinness was no longer involved in terrorism, unionists profoundly disagreed with his republican politics which in later years attempted to take Northern Ireland out of the UK via a political route.

But over almost a decade in Stormont Castle the former IRA commander demonstrated a commitment to devolution which is not shared by everyone in Sinn Fein.

His sudden illness has coincided with an abandonment of the strategy over which he presided. That McGuinness philosophy viewed the institutions of the 1998 Agreement as sacrosanct; they were not a bargaining chip, no matter how great the political crisis.

It was the clarity of that stance, at least in part, which caused Arlene Foster to so confidently, yet so disastrously, misread the republican mood three months ago when she suggested that Mr McGuinness may be “playing a game of chicken” with his calls for her to step aside over the RHI scandal. Within hours of Mrs Foster’s comment, a gaunt and visibly ill Mr McGuinness announced his resignation.

With that decision to collapse Stormont – made while battling terminal illness and at a time when Gerry Adams (who had earlier allegedly overruled Mr McGuinness when he struck a deal with the DUP on welfare reform) was increasingly involving himself in the minutiae of the situation – the decade-long McGuinness strategy was abandoned overnight.

Electorally, the move was spectacularly vindicated, with Sinn Fein coming within a seat of the DUP and depriving unionism of its Stormont majority for the first time in the history of the state.

That election, along with Brexit and the push for an independence referendum in Scotland, have awakened dormant nationalists and made the Union appear less secure than it did a year ago.

Struggling to react to the new reality, a complacent unionism – and in particular Arlene Foster – has struck the wrong tone, contributing to the growth of Sinn Fein’s vote.

Having played a key role in stabilising Northern Ireland over the last decade, suddenly Mr McGuinness’s final political act has contributed to the sort of political and constitutional uncertainty for which he strove during his earlier years in the IRA.

On the day of Mr McGuinness’s death, Sinn Fein was negotiating over whether it will even return to Stormont. If it does not, then a return to direct rule from Westminster appears inevitable.

While that may build resentment within nationalism and thus increase support for Irish unity, it is an abandonment of Sinn Fein’s 20-year-old strategy of transferring as much power as possible back from London to the island of Ireland.

In having placed such store in Stormont and skilfully worked the system, Mr McGuinness became a lynchpin of the new Northern Ireland establishment.

That is an extraordinary thing for a man born into a working-class Catholic family in the Bogside in 1950.

Yesterday the head of the Civil Service, Sir Malcolm McKibbin – who worked alongside Mr McGuinness in Stormont Castle and is now effectively running Northern Ireland in the absence of an Executive – spoke of Mr McGuinness in the warmest terms.

Sir Malcolm, whose predecessor Sir Ken Bloomfield and his family were almost murdered by Mr McGuinness’s IRA three decades earlier, said that Mr McGuinness “was always very supportive and courteous to me” and was “tireless in his efforts to improve the workings of the devolved institution”.

In a 2013 interview with Mark Carruthers for his Alternative Ulsters book, Mr McGuinness was asked: “To what extent do you feel uncomfortable sitting in the deputy first minister’s office in Stormont? At one stage you were fighting the establishment, but you’re here now as part of the establishment.”

Mr McGuinness replied: “Not in the least; we’ve all had to compromise. I’m not the only person who has compromised ... I don’t regard compromise as a dirty word”.

As with Ian Paisley, there are deep contradictions between the Martin McGuinness of the 1970s and his latter years.

The man who once had overseen a strategy of economic sabotage in his home city with the IRA murdering prominent businessmen and denouncing them as “not Irishmen but colonialists” ended up dining at black tie corporate events and arguing for corporation tax to be slashed for big business.

The IRA commander who told the Irish News in June 1986 that “freedom can only be gained at the point of an IRA rifle and I apologise to no one for saying that we support and admire the freedom fighters of the IRA” would as deputy first minister denounce as “traitors” republicans who to this day stick to that ideology.

The man who (as recounted in Liam Clarke and Kathryn Johnston’s seminal book ‘Martin McGuinness: From Guns to Government’) told a Noraid rally in 1994 after the first IRA ceasefire that “the IRA would be a laughing stock if they did it [decommissioned]” and even referred to a token act of decommissioning by saying that republicans “would undoubtedly interpret that as a surrender” went on to oversee the destruction of the IRA’s arsenal.

The man who (again, as reported in ‘From Guns to Government’) when arguing for Sinn Fein to drop its abstentionist policy in 1986 told IRA colleague Sean Keenan “Do you really think I would take a seat in Stormont?” would go on to become so firmly committed to Stormont that it took a grassroots republican backlash for him to walk away from what has been the symbol of unionist power.

Yesterday the depth of the unionist recognition of Mr McGuinness’s latter role in attempting to make Northern Ireland work was striking. Already since his departure from politics in January it has become clear to senior unionists just how much is likely to change in his absence.

In many ways the very IRA background which means that many unionists will only ever feel loathing for him made him – as Peter Robinson yesterday said – perhaps the only person who could have struck the deal which he and Gerry Adams did, sold it to republicans as anything other than surrender, and then gone on to make further grand gestures such as meeting the Queen. Now Sinn Fein is nominally led by Michelle O’Neill in Northern Ireland but she is an appointment of Gerry Adams without a fraction of Mr McGuinness’s clout.

Having spent so much of his life dedicated to the destruction of Northern Ireland through violence, it was ultimately Mr McGuinness’s years of attempting to make Northern Ireland work through the slow grind of politics which lulled unionism into a false sense of security.

In that period, support for the Union rose to unprecedented levels as the Republic suffered financial collapse.

Now, having grown complacent about Sinn Fein’s commitment to Stormont and having miscalculated the strength of its position, unionism finds itself shorn of its Stormont majority, facing a political foe whose strategy is now largely unknown and unsure whether devolution will even return.

By comparison to that position, Martin McGuinness, who even in recent years the DUP used as the ‘bogey man’ to bolster its vote, may now look like a fairly solid partner in government.