By Prof. Arthur Aughey
Shortly after the announcement of the death of Martin McGuinness, Radio Four’s Today Programme played a revealing interview he gave in a BBC TV documentary.
The subject was the IRA’s murder on 27th August 1979 of Lord Mountbatten.
18 soldiers were murdered on the same day in the Warrenpoint bombing, the most killed in a single incident in Northern Ireland.
McGuinness, according to Ed Moloney’s book A Secret History of the IRA, was then chief of staff of the IRA.
In that interview, his response was simple and unapologetic. McGuinness saw no alternative to armed struggle. If someone provided him with one, he would consider it.
That fundamentalist argument in support of republican terrorism has been re-written into the struggle for, and achievement of, peace.
For example, Labour Shadow Chancellor John O’Donnell claimed in 2003 that without the IRA’s campaign, the aspiration of many for a united Ireland would not have been acknowledged. There would have been no peace process.
O’Donnell’s interpretation of history is how McGuinness’s life is now presented – a terrorist leader who was seeking peace.
It is a justification hard to swallow.
The whole point of the IRA campaign, which lasted for twenty-five years, was to prevent agreement in Northern Ireland.
The only alternative McGuinness and the Army Council were prepared to consider was one which delivered a united Ireland on their own terms.
Violence was the strategy of choice and not of necessity.
The alternative was the strategy of persuasion. If McGuinness had wanted to know about it, he had only to listen to what his Derry neighbour, John Hume, was saying.
In pursuit of Irish unity by force, the IRA was responsible for 1700 deaths, more than half of the Troubles total.
Over 500 regular army, 300 police officers and 200 Ulster Defence Regiment soldiers lost their lives, mainly at its hands.
The IRA campaign caused untold misery and destruction, even for those Catholics whom the IRA claimed to defend (republicans murdered over 300).
The transition from war to peace, when it came, was the product of an effective intelligence-led security response.
Despite having access to Libyan weaponry and explosives from the mid-1980s, the IRA leadership eventually accepted that there was no prospect of military success.
At the beginning of the 1990s, that leadership was looking for a way out.
McGuinness accepted the necessity of that direction. He did not accept the illegitimacy of armed struggle. His leadership, however, was vital to convince IRA hardliners. He had street cred.
That is why he was so useful to Tony Blair. With determination and single-mindedness, McGuinness dedicated himself to politics - precisely the same disciplined approach which he had demonstrated as militarist.
When Sinn Fein became the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland, McGuinness adopted the role of republican elder statesman.
It was a role which he played effectively, especially after 2007 when he became Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland.
Even his fiercest political adversaries accept that he was a pivotal figure in the Executive.
He was also willing to challenge republican taboos when he shook hands with the Queen in 2012.
Enoch Powell famously remarked that all political careers end in failure. In the case of Martin McGuinness, this should be modified.
His terrorist career ended in failure. Luckily, unlike the victims of the IRA, he lived long enough to be politically successful.
Arthur Aughey is Emeritus Professor at the University of Ulster and Senior Fellow at the Centre for British Politics at the University of Hull. He has published widely on Northern Ireland politics, British Conservatism and constitutional change in the United Kingdom. He was until recently a member of the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council and the British Council (Northern Ireland Committee). He also sat on the Department of Culture Arts and Leisure Working Group on the Bicentenary of the Irish Act of Union (2000-1).
Pictures courtesy of Sinn Féin.