March 31, 2017

Martin McGuinness

Martin McGuinness

Source: Wikimedia Commons

McGuinness made the transition from war to electoral politics. Others took that path before him, all the early leaders of the Free State and Republic, notably Éamon de Valera. In Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, denounced as “€œa leader to darkness and death”€ during the Mau Mau rebellion, became after independence president of Kenya and an admired and respected Commonwealth statesman. In apartheid South Africa Nelson Mandela plotted terrorism before”€”emerging from thirty years in prison”€”he became a secular saint, preaching reconciliation. The future Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin was a leader of the terrorist (freedom-fighting) Irgun during the British Mandate for Palestine, and was responsible for the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem and other atrocities. Like Martin McGuinness, he never repented. Freedom fighters/terrorists rarely do. They believe their end justifies the means employed.

The mistake we make is surely to see things in black and white, to perceive people as wholly good or wholly evil. Even monsters have their softer side; many, such as the Wagner family of Bayreuth, who knew Hitler liked him. Conversely, ordinary decent people can do dreadful things without being themselves bad, especially in wartime; few, I suppose, think of the crews of Bomber Command, who rained death on German cities, killing tens of thousands of people, as wicked men. Quite the contrary, we admire them for their courage and willingness to risk their own lives.

Many, understandably, agree with Norman Tebbit in believing that Martin McGuinness deserves to rot in hell. Irish Republicans regard him as a hero. Politicians who dealt with him in the negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement speak of his charm and intelligence; he was a loving family man with a fondness for fly-fishing, cricket, Gaelic football, and poetry. But he was also a man who, to quote Jenny McCartney again, “€œfirmly believed that the cause of a united Ireland could be furthered by killing, and he was broad in his selection of targets.”€ He turned away from killing only when he concluded that the “€œarmed struggle”€ had become counterproductive. The same end had to be pursued by different means. His life poses questions to which there is no easy or comfortable answer. It’s absurd to call him a good man who did bad things or a bad man who came eventually to do good ones. He was more complicated than that. The one thing I am sure of is that he was self-righteous”€”in both war and peace. But that could be said with equal truth of most who engage in political activity, especially in a time when politics is a matter of life and death.


Sign Up to Receive Our Latest Updates!