From the moment the death of Martin McGuinness was announced, it was a given certainty that the eulogies -in the widest possible sense of that word- would range from descriptions of his having been among the fiercest of the modern Irish Republican freedom fighters to that of a common terrorist-murderer.
But to friend, foe and neutral must have been unanimity in acknowledging an aura and legend surrounding the man. This after all was a person who rose to the ranks of the Irish Republican Army at a very young age. He was apparently a man of great charm and ruthless cunning. And his levels of personal discipline, organisational resourcefulness and ability to command loyalty did not escape the attention of the British intelligence services; his MI5 file recording the view that his talents as a strategic thinker made him “officer material”.
Attached to McGuinness was much in the manner of myth and mystery. Questions arose over the years about his specific role in various aspects of the conflict. Did he fire the first shot on Bogside during the 1972 demonstration when British paratroopers massacred innocent Catholic demonstrators? Did he ever remove himself from the decision-making structure of the IRA as he repeatedly claimed he had done at an earlier stage of the conflict? And given the increasingly high level of penetration achieved by British intelligence as the conflict endured, did he at some point in fact become an asset of his sworn enemies?
These are but a few of which some resolution has been forthcoming. The Saville Inquiry into the ‘Bloody Sunday’ massacre on Bogside made the finding that McGuinness was “probably armed with a (Thompson) sub-machine gun but that there was insufficient evidence to prove that he fired it. McGuinness himself vehemently denied firing a gun on that fateful day.
Of the commonly asserted British claim of his long-term membership of the IRA’s Army Council including a spell in the role of Chief of Staff, McGuinness also offered a consistent denial, insisting that he left the organisation in 1974. But he often asserted his pride at having been a member of the Derry Brigade of Oglaigh na hEireann. His influence endured even after he relinquished direct operational control of the organisation.
The claim that he was a British informer was based on the revelations of an IRA turncoat who accepted the purported evidence implicating McGuinness in good faith, but which was later pronounced as being a forgery.
Much opacity however continues to surround the specific decisions McGuinness may have made in a brutal conflict which encompassed bombings, shootings, executions, and kneecappings. What many of McGuinness’ opponents find hard to forgive or forget is the legacy of the slaughter of innocents; those non-combatants killed in bomb attacks and drive-by shootings as well as those disappeared and given secret burials.
The revival in the late 1960s of the Irish Republican Army of which Martin McGuinness would become a key player was a continuum of centuries of episodic violence within a province that is part of an island considered by republicans to be England's "first and last colony".
McGuinness unlike Gerry Adams did not come from a family steeped in republican history and instead represented an example of the radicalisation of many Catholic youth at a time of great social ferment.
It should not be forgotten that the ugliness which accompanied what came to be known as 'The Troubles' came after Protestant resistance to a civil rights movement led by figures in the Roman Catholic community who were seeking to end discriminatory practices in housing, employment and policing.
Alienated by the intransigence of a system seemingly bent on maintaining Protestant privilege at all costs, the likes of McGuinness turned to violence when the spectrum of disaffection had crossed the threshold of maintaining faith in the possibility of a legal and political solution to the causes of their grievance.
The power sharing arrangement that followed the Good Friday Agreement, of which McGuinness was the chief negotiator for Sinn Fein, included measures such as the reform of policing in Northern Ireland and more or less achieved what had been sought by the civil rights movement three decades earlier.
There are diehard Republicans who will cast him as a traitor for compromising on the ideal of only giving up the fight with the achievement of a united Ireland. This was the charge which had cost Michael Collins his life. Yet McGuiness and his long term collaborator Gerry Adams became peacemakers as had Collins before them and as did ANC leader Nelson Mandela in South Africa.
The background to what prompted the peace process is subject to partisan disputation. What the British establishment and Protestant loyalists see as the defeat and surrender of the IRA, republicans view as a compromise.
It is clear that the IRA's declaration of an unconditional ceasefire was brought about by the simple fact that it had been shorn of its capability of continuing as an effective guerrilla force. The British state had seen to that by waging a 'dirty war' which included orchestrating the compromise of many figures at all levels of the IRA.
Impending defeat and involvement in the peace process is claimed by McGuinness’ detractors as a self-serving and cowardly manoeuvre designed to save himself from responsibility for his crimes as the leader of a terror group.
Yet this view refuses to take into account the personal risks that both McGuinness and Adams were taking in starting the peace process, a process which after all could have led to his assassination by disaffected republicans.
Norman Tebbitt’s bitter denunciation of McGuinness on hearing of his demise can be contrasted with that of the daughter of a victim of the IRA’s bombing of Brighton’s Grand Hotel in 1984 who is one of many convinced by the sincerity of his role as a peacemaker.
But it is unsurprising that uncompromisingly negative views of McGuinness persist. There is perhaps something to the argument that once the peace agreement had been achieved, he and Adams should have stepped down and handed over the reins of leadership to a younger generation of nationalist politicians.
The bitter legacy of homicidal violence is not one which can be placed exclusively on the shoulders of McGuinness and his comrades in the IRA. There is still much to be unearthed about the conduct of the British state in its handling of the republican insurgency.
For instance, there are grounds for believing that the bombs which went off in near synchronous fashion in Dublin and Monaghan in May of 1974 killing 33 people were facilitated by agents of British military intelligence.
Kevin Fulton, the pseudonym of a British controlled double agent who had infiltrated the IRA, claimed that the security forces had agents embedded within the ‘Real IRA’ at the time of the Omagh Bombing atrocity of 1998. Fulton, whose real name is believed to be Peter Keely, a Catholic who had joined the Royal Irish Rangers and later co-opted into the intelligence corps, had been a member of the British Army’s Force Research Unit.
The FRU as was the case with several other concoctions of British Army Intelligence such as the Military Reaction Force (MRF), the Special Reconnaissance Unit (SRU) and 14 Intelligence were part of a ruthless counter-insurgency strategy pioneered by General Sir Frank Kitson.
Utilising amoral methods based on the idea of fighting terrorists by means of terrorism, Kitson’s concept of the ‘counter-gang’, provided the theoretical template for a strategy that included permitting extra-judicial killings through the use of loyalist terror proxies. These actions also involved the killing of innocent civilians.
It is while bearing this in mind that in the final analysis, Martin McGuinness will not be the only key player in Northern Ireland's recent troubles to die with blood on his hands.
(c) Adeyinka Makinde (2017)