Unlike his ‘chuckle brother‘ the late Lord Bannside (aka the Rev Dr Ian Paisley), I never met Martin McGuinness. But he was just as significant a player in my early years. And if Paisley deserved my recognition in death, then so too does McGuinness, who served alongside Paisley as Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister.
It is not quite fair to describe the men as two sides of the same coin. I believe Paisley had a “very real, and negative impact on Northern Ireland’s community relations, particularly at the outset of The Troubles, but also in later years… I became convinced that the course of history could have been very different were it not for Paisley’s stirring in the 1960s.”
But Ian Paisley was no killer.
Conversely, McGuinness has acknowledged his IRA membership (and seniority) in the early years of the Troubles. He was convicted of terrorism offences by an Irish court in 1973. Despite claiming to be “very, very proud” of his IRA membership, he claims to have left in 1974, but credible sources believe he was head of its Northern Command throughout the 1980s or at least a member of its seven-man Army Council – ie a director of terrorism. Perhaps Mr McGuinness never pulled the trigger – I doubt we’ll ever know – but many innocent men, women and children died on his orders.
I knew no-one personally who was killed by the IRA, but in 1989 my house was destroyed by a car-bomb parked outside the police station across the road. My family evacuated to safety a short time before and we had to live elsewhere for six months while much of the house was rebuilt. The bomb was planted by IRA volunteers.
No reasonable tribute to Martin McGuinness can ignore this aspect of his career.
But, somehow, his bitter enemy Ian Paisley was able to see past this when they eventually served in office together (briefly in 2007-8). They became close friends, and upon Paisley’s death some years later, McGuinness offered this tribute:
It was quite a leap of character for both men to have enjoyed such an unlikely friendship. Unfortunately, such is the nature of death, we are unable to enjoy Paisley’s reciprocal message. But his wife and children have all paid tribute.
And Ian Paisley Jr, who succeeded his father as the MP for North Antrim, offered this rather balanced assessment of McGuinness’s impact on Northern Irish life.
“He was the Godfather of the Provisional IRA… but it’s not how you start your life that is important, but it’s how you finish your life,” concludes Mr Paisley.
His father’s successor as First Minister, Peter Robinson, penned this reflection of the seven years he shared in office with Mr McGuinness: “Our unique relationship was probably more robust than most friendships and certainly closer, more complicated and formidable than many.” And also: “We had to accept frustration and respect the pace of each other’s support base.”
Life is a journey, and in turning towards peace (without victory, it must be stressed), McGuinness and his Sinn Fein colleague Gerry Adams, led many fellow travellers with them. Their quest (whatever their past) has brought Northern Ireland to a much better place.
It could be said of Mr McGuinness that, by turning away from violence, he demonstrated repentance. That is disputed by many of his opponents who sought something more akin to contrition. He never showed remorse or contrition in public, though to do so might have destroyed his credibility with IRA supporters.
However, or if ever, he atoned for his sins is a matter between him and God.
He is outlived, of course, by Her Majesty The Queen – herself a unionist icon and a symbol of enmity for Irish republicans. Her relative Lord Mountbatten was murdered by the IRA in 1979. Her own scalp would have been quite a coup, but she kept her head and she and McGuinness managed to exchange cordial pleasantries more than once. In this final meeting between them in June last year, she quipped that she was “still alive” when he enquired after her health…