“A terrorist is someone who uses fear to motivate civilians to act in a political manner on their behalf. A freedom fighter is someone who acts on the behalf of at least some civilian population in direct opposition to a military or government.”
Mowing down innocent pedestrians on Westminster Bridge prior to murdering an unarmed police officer with an eight inch knife was perceived by members of ISIL as a justified response to British air strikes in Syria. One man’s terrorist is another man’s guerilla war hero. When discussing the legacy of Martin McGuinness it’s important to bear these distinctions, which are often blurred, in mind. To many Martin McGuinness was a freedom fighter /politician who worked tirelessly to effect a negotiated end to The Troubles. To his supporters the eighteen years of peaceful power-sharing accord is his legacy. To others he will be forever tarnished by his paramilitary past.
This site which is ostensibly a football blog has never shirked the big issues, be it organ farming in China, the wrongful conviction of Ched Evans or the death of Madeline McCann. I’m planning an article on the SNP which will be inordinately well researched. It may not be popular, but if it’s thought provoking then it will have served its purpose. As it will be much more sympathetic to the SNP than my previous political articles it will surprise many. I will also arrive at a conclusion which I believe is ineluctable.
However prior to writing and publishing this article I will tread carefully into a minefield in regard to the passing of Martin McGuinness.
McGuinness was born in the Bogside area of Derry, the second of seven children of religious parents, William, a foundry-worker, and his wife, Peggy. Unlike Gerry Adams, McGuinness did not come from a republican background, but grew up in a city where gerrymandering meant that Protestants always controlled the city council, even though Catholics were the majority population. Indeed, he said that when the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) began campaigning for equal rights, he saw no point in joining.
He failed his 11 plus and on leaving the Christian Brothers’ technical college he was turned down for a job as a car mechanic because he was a Catholic. He accepted the inevitable and sought a job open to Catholics. The fact that he became a butcher’s assistant was used mockingly against him during The Troubles.
McGuinness was still a teenager when fate propelled him into violent politics in his native Derry. Pictures in 1968 of Gerry Fitt, the Catholic MP for West Belfast, splashed with blood after being hit by police batons as he led a civil rights march, shocked him into activism. He took to the streets just as the IRA, having been stood down after abortive Border campaigns in the 1950s, was re-arming. IRA leaders saw him as capable of providing organisation in Derry to mirror what Gerry Adams was developing in Belfast. Within months McGuinness was second in command of the IRA Derry Brigade, the position he still held on 30 January 1972, Bloody Sunday, when British parachute regiment soldiers shot dead 13 unarmed Catholic demonstrators. (source The Guardian obituary).
Martin McGuinness first joined the Official IRA in 1970 before moving to the Provisionals. As an Irish republican and Sinn Féin politician he was second-in-command (deputy First Minister) of Northern Ireland from May 2007 prior to retiring from political life due to the deterioration of his health in January 2017.
McGuinness & Adams were part of a six-strong IRA delegation who engaged in secret talks in London with a team led by William Whitelaw, the Northern Ireland secretary, in 1972. McGuinness and Adams already knew each other from the barricades, but that trip gave them an invaluable insight into the powerful British political establishment and cemented a lifelong friendship and political partnership that was strong enough for them to push through the peace settlement against often violent opposition within the republican community.
Gerry Adams was asked a question by a veteran reporter as to whether violence paid. Adams objected to the use of ‘violence ‘ and asserted that it was pejorative, but continued:
“That’s what the war resulted in; it would have been better that there was no war but you show me anywhere in the world where people have won either a modicum of decency and rights, or indeed in terms of colonial wars, won independence, that it didn’t happen after blood-letting.”
One could choose numerous examples of this blood-letting, but I will choose only one.
The Birmingham pub bombings of 21 November 1974
In the early evening hours of Thursday 21 November, a minimum of three bombs primed with alarm clocks were planted inside two separate public houses and outside a bank located in and around central Birmingham. The bombs concealed inside the Mulberry Bush and the Tavern in the Town were detonated at 8.17 p.m and 8.27 p.m.The explosions killed 21 people and injured 182 others. Martin McGuiness was a senior member of the Provisional IRA at the time of this outrage. The Provisional Irish Republican Army have never officially admitted responsibility for the Birmingham pub bombings but a former senior member admitted their involvement forty years later in 2014. Was this blood-letting of innocent civilians, enjoying a Thursday evening drink, in any way justified or justifiable? I will do my utmost not to let the bitter taste in my mouth colour my judgement when presenting the facts on a divisive figure. An individual hailed by some as the Irish Nelson Mandela.
The Provisional IRA extended its campaign to mainland Britain in 1973, attacking military and symbolically important targets to both increase pressure on the British government, via popular British opinion, to withdraw from Northern Ireland and to maintain morale amongst their supporters. It was a tactic first seen in The Vietnam War. A war which ended with the complete withdrawal of the American forces. During their unjustified and unjustifiable tenure in Vietnam the American military machine killed three million and maimed ten million more. (Source: my visit to The War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City)
The body bags containing the remains of American Servicemen were initially draped in the Stars and Stripes and conferred a hero’s burial. As the number of body bags escalated to 60,000, they were obscured from public view. Winning the information war was central to maintaining the draft.
Prior to any attack upon civilian targets, a code of conduct was followed in which the attacker or attackers would send an anonymous telephone warning to police, with the caller reciting a confidential code word known only to the Provisional IRA and to police, to indicate the authenticity of the threat.
At 20:11, six minutes prior to the first detonation, an unknown man with a distinct Irish accent telephoned the Birmingham Post newspaper and stated:
“There is a bomb planted in the Rotunda and there is a bomb in New Street at the tax office. This is Double X”.
‘Double X‘ was an official Provisional IRA code word recited to authenticate any warning call. A similar warning was also made to the Birmingham Evening Mail newspaper, with the anonymous caller repeating the official IRA code word to indicate the authenticity of the threats, but again failing to name the public houses in which the bombs had been planted.
Police had six minutes notice to clear an area but no precise information on the target locale. Where was the agreed 30 minutes warning that should have preceded any attack on civilian targets? The code words are the smoking gun of Provisional IRA involvement. A smoking gun that can be traced to a command structure that authorised this atrocity. I contend without fear of contradiction that Martin McGuiness had a senior executive position in this command structure at that time.
If one sets aside the 21 innocent victims who died at the scenes or shortly afterwards for a second, one should take pause to consider the many who would lose one or more limbs. Several casualties had been impaled by sections of wooden furniture; others had their clothes burned from their bodies. A paramedic called to the scene of this explosion would later describe the carnage as being reminiscent of a slaughterhouse, whereas one fireman would state that, upon seeing a writhing, “screaming torso”, he had begged police to allow a television crew inside the premises to film the dead and dying at the scene, in the hope the IRA would see the consequences of their actions; however, the police refused this request, fearing that the reprisals would be extreme.
Some of the victims whose bodies had been blown through a brick wall and wedged between the rubble and underground electric cables would take up to three hours to recover, as recovery had to be delayed until the power could be isolated. A passing West Midlands bus was also destroyed by the blast.
Many of those wounded were left permanently disabled, including one young man who lost both legs, and a young woman who was blinded by shrapnel. The majority of the dead and wounded were young people between the ages of 17 and 30, including a young couple on their first date, and two Irishmen, brothers Desmond and Eugene Reilly (aged 21 and 23 respectively). The widow of Desmond Reilly gave birth to his first child four months after his death. One of the victims, 18-year-old Maxine Hambleton, had only entered the Tavern in the Town to hand out tickets to friends for her housewarming party. She was killed seconds after entering the pub as she had been standing directly beside the bomb when it exploded, killing her instantly. Her friend, 17-year-old Jane Davis, was the youngest victim of the bombings and had entered the Tavern in the Town to view holiday photographs she had had developed that afternoon.
In Northern Ireland, loyalist paramilitaries launched a wave of revenge attacks on Irish Catholics. Within two days of the bombings, five Catholic civilians had been shot dead by loyalists.
One of the worst miscarriages of justice ever seen in a British courtroom led to the conviction of six men who had Republican sympathies but no connection with the atrocity. The actual perpetrators have been named. One of these men was Mick Murray, who had been tried alongside the Birmingham Six and convicted of conspiracy to cause explosions. Murray was named as having assisted in the selection of the targets, and had later placed the advance warning call to the Birmingham Post and Birmingham Evening Mail newspapers, which was delayed by a half-hour due to the fact that the pre-selected telephone had been vandalised and another needed to be located, leading to the fateful delay in the warning calls. The other three named in this appalling activity were Seamus McLoughlin, who planned the atrocities; James Francis Gavin (a.k.a. James Kelly, who had likewise been tried alongside the Birmingham Six and convicted of the possession of explosives), who had allegedly constructed each of the bombs; and Michael Christopher Hayes who had planted the bombs at the preselected locations. All the perpetrators were active members of The Provisional IRA.
As much as the unprovoked attack on Fitt was the catalyst for McGuinness taking up arms it’s important to note his commitment to protecting his community from an unofficial dirty war being waged on Nationalists and Republican sympathisers by the Northern Ireland security apparatus.
Lethal Allies: British collusion in Ireland by Anne Cadwallader offers indisputable evidence of security forces collusion with loyalist paramilitaries from 1968-1998
Cadwallader’s forensic analysis of documentary evidence has led her to contend that members of the police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), and Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR), were part of a loyalist gang that killed more than 120 people in just one small area in the 1970s.
In the course of her research at the human rights organisation, the Pat Finucane Centre, she encountered Alan Brecknell who had carried out painstaking research into widespread collusion after investigating the controversial circumstances surrounding the 1975 murder of his father, Trevor.
Cadwallader’s documentary evidence was gleaned from the Historical Enquiries Team (HET), which was a unit set up by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) in September 2005 to investigate unsolved murders committed during The Troubles..
Cadwallader’s book reveals how RUC officers and members of the UDR were part of a death squad operating from two farms in south Armagh and Tyrone. This death squad targeted and assassinated 120 individuals.
“It can be demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that there was systemic collusion in these cases.”
In support of her thesis she relates a series of killings that point to collusion, such as the murders of four people in attacks on two pubs in Charlemont, Co Armagh, in May 1976 and an attack on the Catholic-run Rock Bar in Co Armagh, also in 1976.
The Guardian’s Henry McDonald, in his report on the book, centres on the Rock Bar incident. He tells of how only one serving police officer was found guilty of the attack, which the HET report said “beggars belief.”
It described the original police inquiry into the attack as “unforgivable” and made a damning indictment in a document quoted by Cadwallader:
“A busy country pub frequented by honest, decent working people was a target for a sectarian attack; a member of the public in the street outside was callously gunned down without warning; a powerful explosive, wrapped in nail and metal fragments to ensure maximum numbers would be killed or maimed, is detonated at the door; the police investigation is cursory, ineffective and even fails to interview the only witness, who survived being shot down.”
Another HET report also claimed that the RUC had advance knowledge of an attack in which two people died in August 1976 at the The Step Inn in Keady, Co Armagh.
According to the book, the RUC knew a bomb was being stored at a farmhouse owned by a serving police officer and asked the army to put it under surveillance. But the surveillance was lifted and the bomb was then used in the attack.
Cadwallader contends that RUC’s Special Branch knew the identities of four people involved in the bombing, but that no arrests were made.
Has McGuinness’ remit as a defender of his community against the worst ravages of a paramilitary death squad been quickly forgotten by those who seek to condemn him? He was deemed to be Britain’s number one terrorist by The Daily Mail less than twenty-four hours ago. I have come neither to praise McGuinness nor to condemn him. I will let history be the judge of his military legacy.
I have long been an admirer of Channel 4 news. In the course of my research for this article I came across a discussion on McGuinness’ legacy which solicited input from Sinn Fein’s Raymond McCartney, Alastair Campbell and Julie Hamilton whose sister perished in the Birmingham bombings.
Julie Hamilton made an impassioned plea that McGuinness lacked the integrity, courage and bravery that one would expect of a senior statesman. She finds it unconscionable that a ‘mass murderer’ is lauded and applauded as a modern-day Nelson Mandela. She asserted that Mandela paid for his crimes when incarcerated on Robben Island. She contrasted his situation with that of McGuinness whom she contended had never been denied his liberty for his crimes.
However this is not historically accurate as McGuiness spent much of the 1970s in and out of prison as a victim of internment due to his membership of a proscribed organisation. HM Prison Maze was the Guantanamo of its day.
McCartney would not be drawn on McGuinness’ paramilitary past. His rhetoric highlighted his role as a champion of the peace process. However it was evident that Julie Hamilton has no peace of mind.
Alastair Campbell was fulsome in his praise for McGuinness, but as the patron saint of an Iraqi genocide he was not in a position to cast the first stone.
McGuinness’ introduction to politics was at the behest of the IRA leadership who invited him as twenty-two year old to participate in the secret meetings with Whitelaw.
This led inexorably to his finest hour as a politician when he was Sinn Féin’s chief negotiator in the Northern Ireland peace process that led to the Good Friday agreement of 1998.
A fitting tribute to McGuinness’ legacy as a politician and statesman came in a letter from Ex-UUP leader David Trimble who wrote to his former political foe just last week to say he believed he had been indispensable to securing the republican movement’s support for the Good Friday Agreement and devolution. In a letter, dated March 12, which was released by the Nobel Peace prize-winner following Mr. McGuinness’ death he also asserted that the Sinn Féin leader had been foremost in reaching out to unionists:
“Like many I was surprised to learn of your illness and of its seriousness. Then, on reflection, I thought it behoved me, as the First Minister when we first achieved devolution to the Assembly created by the Good Friday Agreement some eighteen years ago, to say how much we appreciated all that you did to make that happen. In doing that you reached out to the Unionist community in a way some of them were reluctant to reach out to you. Without knowing the detail of how the republican movement moved to that point, I and my colleagues believed that your were indispensable.
I will never forget the truly historic first meeting of the Executive and how we approached that seriously and in good humour, marred only by the absence of two Ministers. I think that that even tempered manner was characteristic of all your time in office, and we knew that it was never at the expense of your principles. Perhaps the best expression of your approach was your meeting with Queen Elizabeth. There are many today, as we sit with the clock ticking down to the deadline of getting the institutions up and running again, who think that if you were at the helm, we would face this prospect with greater optimism.”
The image of McGuinness, as deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, standing side by side with a smiling Robinson, Paisley’s successor as Democratic Unionist party leader and first minister, and shaking the Queen’s hand during her visit to Belfast in 2012, vividly portrayed not only how far McGuinness himself had developed over the years, but how far Northern Ireland had moved from the violence of 1968. The two met on a number of subsequent occasions, the last coming in June 2016 at Hillsborough Castle, when the Queen unveiled a portrait of herself. After a 20-minute private meeting McGuinness said: “I am an unapologetic Irish republican and I value very much the contribution Queen Elizabeth has made to the peace process and to reconciliation.” One should note that she was shaking the hands of a man of whom it is alleged gave the go-ahead for the assassination of Lord Mountbatten, her second cousin first removed.
When drawn McGuinness would justify the “armed struggle” of those early days, saying that a “little boy” from the Catholic Bogside was no more culpable than a little black boy from Soweto. But in the subsequent half-century, his commitment was to words, not bullets.
He stated :
The lesson from the conflict here is the same for everywhere else. There are no military solutions – dialogue and diplomacy are the only guarantee of lasting peace.
In his resignation letter of 9 January, McGuinness spoke of his aspirations:
“I have sought with all my energy and determination to serve all the people of the north and the island of Ireland by making the power-sharing government work. Throughout that time, I have worked with successive DUP first ministers and, while our parties are diametrically opposed ideologically and politically, I have always sought to exercise my responsibilities in good faith and to seek resolutions rather than recrimination.”
If one removes one’s predetermined prejudices to Martin McGuiness a more sympathetic figure emerges. Is Northern Ireland a better place for all of its citizens due in large part to the tireless endeavour of Martin McGuiness? The answer to this is unequivocally to the affirmative.
So who was Martin McGuinness? Was he an unconscionable cold-blooded murderer or a freedom fighter? In my estimation he was both. I cannot begin to condone the slaughter of innocent civilians in the pursuit of a cause. Just as I cannot begin to condone the latest outrage by ISIL in London.