Martin McGuinness = Nelson Mandela?

There were two Martin McGuiness’s, a man of war and a man of peace, says John Major, reflecting the orthodox view. There then begins an empty debate over which was the “real” Martin McGuinness. In fact here was only one Martin McGuinness, and his life had a logic and a mission—impossible as that might seem to people who had children, siblings, and parents killed by the IRA.

McGuinness was born into a Northern Ireland that was as unjust as Apartheid South Africa. Indeed, Apartheid is often used in the context of Northern Ireland: Catholics/Nationalists were systematically oppressed. They may have had the vote, but the political system was rigged.

So what do you do about such injustice? You might wait 50 years for the demography to change, although you might legitimately fear that, as in South Africa, a ruling will find a way to prolong its power.

If you believe in a just war then you probably need to believe in just “terrorism”/rebellion/revolution. I write “probably” because terrorism often targets “innocent” victims, but a) wars kill civilians too (in fact increasingly so) and b) are adults “innocent” if they live with the status quo that suppresses many? With the example of the Second World War it’s hard to believe that there is no such a thing as a just war.

What are the conditions for a just war? I could look them up, but I’ll think for myself. Firstly, there must be substantial injustice. This was the case in Northern Ireland, although some would not accept that it was so. Secondly, you must have exhausted peaceful means to end the injustice. Many would say this was true of Northern Ireland before the “troubles” began. Thirdly, the terrorism must in some way be “proportionate.” This is hard, perhaps impossible, to judge, but terrorism that is directed against agents of the oppressive state (policemen, soldiers, politicians) would certainly be more proportionate than blowing up children. Fourthly, as the oppressive state tiring of the violence comes to recognise the need to negotiate the “terrorists” must be willing to negotiate.

Jonathan Powell, who was Tony Blair’s chief of staff when negotiating the Good Friday Agreement, described on the radio how McGuinness had always been there whenever there was any possibility of negotiating a peace agreement, going back to the early days of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. Knowing when the time is right on both sides is a hard calculation, and John Major described his horror when the IRA returned to violence after he had been negotiating with them. He also made the generous point that he might have his difficulties with his backbenchers and Parliament, but he didn’t run the risk of being short as McGuinness did–by both his enemies and his own side.

One of the most remarkable features in McGuinness’s was his friendship and political partnership with Ian Paisley, once his sworn enemy. Powell described how he knew peace was coming when negotiations had to start late because McGuiness and Paisley had been up late together drinking whisky and Irish dancing.

McGuinness was, I believe, one man not two. Will McGuinness one day come to be seen as much of a hero as Nelson Mandela? I believe he will–when Ireland becomes one, as it inevitably will.




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