Martin McGuinness: The Ultimate Life of Two Halves

I am instinctively disgusted by the arrogance of terrorists. Granting yourself the right to take the lives of others in pursuit of your own ends is morally repugnant. Hence, on hearing the news of the death of Martin McGuinness, my primary sympathies were not with the deceased; they were with the families of all those innocent people who were blown to pieces by the IRA whilst at work, having a drink in the pub or shopping with their mum and dad.

My initial reaction to some of the commentary on McGuinness was that it skirted too close to deifying him as Derry’s answer to Nelson Mandela. There has been much talk of his undoubted political talent and strategic genius. But for many years that smartness was deployed in directing acts of violence that destroyed lives.

Much was also made of McGuinness’ ultimate willingness to work with former foes during and after the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement. Fair enough. But, on the British mainland at least, I have often felt less has been made of the Unionists preparedness to do the same.

As someone with left-of-centre political views and a hardline take on equality, I am not automatically well-disposed to cussed and conservative Ulster Unionists. But, at times like this, I do feel more sympathetic to some of them. The much vilified former First Minister, Arlene Foster, for example, deserves more understanding for her obvious struggles to reconcile political pragmatism in the interests of the peace process with the events of her life.

Lest we forget – and, in my opinion, we do too often - Foster’s father, an off-duty, part-time policeman, was shot in the head whilst working on their family farm when she was eight years old. The hidden assailants who attempted to kill him were from the IRA, a terrorist organisation led for years by Martin McGuinness (although he never publicly admitted that).

The closest I ever got to an IRA bomb was when their 1991 mortar attack on Downing Street shattered the windows of my room at the Foreign Office. We jumped under the desks sharply but the building’s reinforced glass and bomb curtains meant it was not that dangerous.

I am grateful to have never had to live through an experience like Foster’s or subsequently find out how forgiving or conciliatory I would have been able to be. I cannot honestly say for sure that I would have been willing to be in a room with Martin McGuinness, unless it was to get close enough to exact revenge.

McGuinness deserves respect for his personal transition and crucial contribution to ending the violence

And yet. McGuinness’ formative years in Londonderry’s Bogside district were spent as part of an oppressed community amidst a rising climate of violence. He experienced the mundane day-to-day discrimination, such as being turned down for a job as a car mechanic because he was a Catholic. Simultaneously, peaceful civil rights protests were drawing attacks from Protestant mobs and increasingly aggressive police and British Army action.

In those circumstances, I can see how McGuinness was drawn into a life of violence as a young man, even whilst loathing his subsequent actions. His already apparent leadership skills meant that he became second-in-command of the IRA’s Derry Brigade whilst still in his teens (a position he did later acknowledge holding). He was in that role at the time of Bloody Sunday in 1972, an atrocity that must have understandably intensified his views.

This background and the subsequent two decades McGuinness spent at the heart of the troubles make the second part of his life remarkable. He eventually had the wisdom and fortitude to climb off the cycle of violence. More importantly, he led many others to follow him on that course.

It is striking how so many of those who were closely involved in the peace process, on all sides, have commented on McGuinness’ commitment to it and his pivotal role in bringing his people with him. Not least, they have also commended his courage in seeing it through whilst knowing that one false step could result in the unreconciled putting a bullet in his head.

McGuinness deserves respect for his personal transition and crucial contribution to ending the violence that seemed an insoluble fact of life to those of us who lived through those decades in Britain and Ireland. His passing will make it all the harder to keep the peace alive in Northern Ireland, with the problems caused by Brexit now being placed on top of local tensions.

Disgust at what he was and respect for what he became. Martin McGuinness lived the ultimate life of two halves.

More about the author

About the author

Paul Knott began his working life in a hut on Hull's King George Dock before globetrotting for two decades as an unlikely British envoy. His "instructive and funny" (Alan Johnson MP) book about his experiences, "The Accidental Diplomat", is out now.

He is also the Chief Foreign Correspondent for the Sabotage Times and contributes to publications such as The Telegraph, Forty-20 and When Saturday Comes.

All that travel has failed to shift Paul's inherited old Labour instincts.

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