The death of Martin McGuinness in the early hours of Tuesday morning has left Northern Ireland in shock. In our increasingly uncertain political landscape, he was the enduring factor.
He summed up his contribution to the peace process himself when he said he brought a “steadying influence” to Stormont. In less humble terms, his undeterred commitment to the future of Northern Ireland gave hope to a government that seems always on the brink of collapse. His belief that a better future lay ahead for Northern Ireland seemed for some like a guarantee that there would be.
McGuinness was born in Derry’s Bogside, where poverty, underemployment, Gerrymandering and every day discrimination were the consequences of being an Irish Catholic. When the civil rights movement turned to the violence of the Provisional IRA McGuinness rose quickly through their ranks. On Bloody Sunday he was the second in command of the IRA in Derry, aged just 22. From 1978 to 1982 he was believed to be the IRA chief of staff, committed totally to the campaign of violence. Even on being elected in 1982 he promised that only “the cutting edge of the IRA” could bring freedom to Ireland.
There’s been much talk of ensuring we don’t ‘whitewash’ history in the last 24 hours. It’s important to recognise that whilst to Gerry Adams McGuinness’s death meant ‘Ireland lost a hero’, to many victims of IRA violence we lost a terrorist who took the truth of murdered relatives to his grave. Despite coming from a Nationalist background, I could never ask the family of Patrick Gillespie—the man who was forced to act as a ‘human bomb’ by driving explosives into a British Army checkpoint—to pay tribute to McGuinness as an architect of the peace process.
Yet extraordinarily the relatives of some victims have. Jo Berry, whose father was killed by an IRA bomb in Brighton’s Grand Hotel, yesterday said “Martin McGuinness’s work was absolutely essential in securing peace. It’s because people like him have sat down with their enemies that we have peace today.”
Perhaps to ensure that we don’t underestimate the contribution that Martin McGuinness made to peace in Northern Ireland we have to accept that for some it is a contradiction in terms.
To my parents who lived through the troubles, at one point in time it would have been inconceivable that Martin McGuinness would describe himself as an “unapologetic republican” who “values very much the contribution Queen Elizabeth made to the peace process.” They certainly never thought they would be watching him shake the Queen’s hand on television or act as Deputy First Minister alongside Sir Ian Paisley in a partnership so successful they were known as ‘the chuckle brothers’.
However it is this transition between what is for some two irreconcilable roles in Irish politics—IRA leader to peacemaker—that made McGuinness a personification of the peace process itself. Perhaps that’s why it feels so surreal that he is gone, and that Stormont will go on without him.
I was born in February 1998, the same year that Martin McGuinness signed the Good Friday agreement. I experienced none of the violence that makes him, for some, unforgivable. However to use the eloquent words of Tony Blair, his “quiet insistence that the past should not define the future” meant that I could live Derry’s Bogside without the conflict that dominated the lives of my parent’s generation.
For me his legacy consists mainly of what he did when he was in government: scrapping the Eleven Plus, opposing the gay blood ban, calling for same-sex marriage, opposing welfare cuts and collapsing the government over the RHI scandal and the DUP campaign against the Irish language. These are the actions that have affected me, not bomb attacks. Perhaps then Ian Paisley Jr.’s sentiment that “it’s not how you start your life but how you finish it that matters” holds true.
Moral judgement on the life of Martin McGuinness isn’t mine to make, and in the coming weeks that shouldn’t be the focus of Northern Ireland’s politicians either. The parties of Stormont have a few more weeks left to negotiate a new government, and what we need in the negotiating room is the kind of leadership and capacity for reconciliation that makes up so much of Martin McGuinness’s legacy.
Though his death will have undoubtedly shaken the politicians of Stormont, there’s an important job to be done, and McGuinness would have been focused on getting on with it.