Martin McGuinness was a product of the hostile environment he grew up in

McGuinness worked out a united Ireland was not going to be achieved by IRA violence, writes Victoria White

Martin McGuinness was a product of the hostile environment he grew up in

MY PRESBYTERIAN granny summed it all up in her broad East Donegal accent with one word: “jallousy”.

That was all that was wrong with the nationalist community in the North. They looked at the standard of living their Protestant neighbours had got by the sweat of their labours and they wanted it without the work.

I don’t have to be persuaded that Martin McGuinness grew up in a sectarian Orange statelet. I heard the sectarianism from my educated, intelligent Granny at my own kitchen table.

And I know that if I had been born a boy in the Bogside in 1950 I might have joined the IRA in 1968. My outrage at the moral and economic suppression of my community might have sufficiently numbed my horror: the horror of killing, that I could have been responsible for the violent deaths of innocent human beings.

When McGuinness explained his violent past by referring to its context, it wasn’t an excuse, it was the truth. I don’t actually believe many of us can be absolutely sure we wouldn’t have done what he did.

I am also fairly sure that if my husband or son had been strapped to an IRA bomb on McGuinness’s orders I would damn him to hell on this, the day of his funeral. But he wasn’t and sitting safely at my desk well south of the border I can afford more perspective. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Context is everything. I don’t believe the convenient lie that there were two Martin McGuinnesses. He grew up in a gerry-mandered statelet, ruthlessly run to advance the interests of the Unionist majority at the expense of the Irish Catholic minority.

McGuinness explained joining the IRA as the “logical” outcome of being 18 when the Orange RUC baton-charged peaceful civil rights protesters in nationalist Derry. He grew up in a statelet in which the police force was out to get him and his community.

The coffin of Northern Ireland’s former deputy first minister Martin McGuinness is carried to his home in Derry.
The coffin of Northern Ireland’s former deputy first minister Martin McGuinness is carried to his home in Derry.

And when Derry began its violent struggle, the British state, one of the most developed, economically and politically, in the world, sent in an army which turned around the attacked the nationalists.

One of the most arresting descriptions I have ever read of that period in Derry’s history was in the autobiography of the journalist Nell Mc Cafferty. She describes her horror at the realisation that the British army, which she thought would protect her, was attacking her community. It seemed to shock her almost as much as it would shock me if the Irish army, my army, turned around and attacked me.

Context. Even as late as 1986 McGuinness was saying. “The war against British rule must continue until freedom is achieved”.

I don’t believe in the “Damascene” moment, the “transformation”. No. The context changed.

Martin McGuinness worked out that a united Ireland was not going to be achieved by IRA violence and that the time for talking had come: “I was saying to people, this isn’t going to be resolved by a British government standing up some day and saying, ‘We’re going to take all of the British soldiers out of here, they’re going to sail down Belfast Lough and Lough Foyle in steamboats back to England’. It isn’t going to happen like that. We had to recognise that there would have to be at some stage, whether now or in five or 10 years or 20 years’ time, political negotiations.”

That’s what happened in the end, as we all know. The Good Friday Agreement is the magnificent achievement of those political negotiations. It declares that though the “tragedies of the past” have left a “profoundly regrettable” legacy of suffering, “we can best honour them through a fresh start, in which we firmly dedicate ourselves to the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance and mutual trust.” It offers the power-sharing Executive and a credible police force. It even offers a firm, peaceful pathway to a united Ireland, if the majority of voters on both sides of the border wish it. And this is a possibility that has been suddenly ushered closer by Brexit and the recent Assembly elections.

I can’t be as sure as Michéal Martin that it will happen in my lifetime. But I know I want it.

And this is the hard bit: we can never know if it could have been achieved without the IRA campaign of violence. I abhorred that campaign. Through those years I kept in my room a picture of a British army officer with his tiny daughter on his lap, as a kind of peace offering to the gods who had related me by nationality to his IRA murderers.

But the truth is that two wrongs can make a right. And that must be accepted even by those, such as myself, who would still not make the decision to engage in a campaign of violence even if I knew that it would bring the progress for the nationalist community represented by the Good Friday Agreement.

I don’t believe the Northern Assembly is really “Stormont for slow learners” as the SDLP’s Seamus Mallon famously dubbed it. It is true that the SDLP have offered an honourable, peaceful, constitutional alternative to violent nationalist from the late 1960s to this day and I hope I would have chosen them over Sinn Fein had I grown up in the North.

The presence and participation of the SDLP was necessary to the peace process but of course there would have been no peace process without war. And we can never be sure that there would have been enough energy, urgency and political risk-taking, here and internationally, to have wrought such change in the North if there hadn’t been the context of war.

The peace process is ongoing. We are heading into the last week in which a new Assembly can be negotiated and there will be a slippage of trust if fresh elections have to be called. Many in the North are wondering if there can ever be the same amount of determined peace-making again in the Assembly as there was a decade ago, in the era of the “Chuckle Brothers”?

I loved it when ex-Secretary of State Peter Hain told RTÉ that he wasn’t surprised McGuinness made friends with Ian Paisley as they were both typical warm-hearted family men with pride in their traditions, “sprung from the soil of Northern Ireland.” I always had a soft spot for Ian Paisley because he reminded me of one of my East Donegal uncles: there is such humour and such kindness in the Northern Protestant community, as well as bigotry.

Communities don’t divide neatly into good and bad parts. Nor do people. And nor do paths to independent, pluralist, self-governing republics.

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