Going by the polarised social media reaction over the past few days, Martin McGuinness is as divisive in death as he was in life. But whatever you think of him and the politics he represented, there is no doubt that a giant of Northern Irish politics has finally left the scene.
McGuinness was instrumental in the Provisional Irish Republican Army’s transition from armed struggle to constitutional politics. From militant advocate of political violence to statesman upholding democratic values, McGuinness’s biography mirrors that of the wider republican movement from which he sprang.
McGuinness was the most pivotal figure within the modern republican movement. His reputation as a hardliner enabled him to bring the Provisionals on an extraordinary journey from guns to government. While Gerry Adams was the more prominent figure within Sinn Féin, it was McGuinness’s authority within the IRA that carried clout when strategic shifts were necessary.
Within a historical context, violent Irish republican organisations that stepped back from armed struggle typically found themselves suffering damaging splits. When the IRA commander, Michael Collins, accepted the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921, the movement split almost 50-50. The civil war of 1922-3 that followed pitted former comrades against each other in hallowing conflict.
That a civil war within republicanism did not break out following the Provisional IRA’s acceptance of the compromise of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 is testament to McGuinness’s success in convincing his militant fellow travellers that armed struggle in of itself would not achieve the objective of ending British rule in Northern Ireland.
This influence stemmed from McGuinness’s status as a republican ‘hawk’, revered by supporters and demonised by unionists. His dedication to armed struggle appeared wholehearted, and as such he commanded authority within the Provisional movement. But McGuinness’s hardline credentials masked an innate pragmatism. The Provisional IRA shed much of its ‘pure’ militant ideology from the 1980s, but these compromises were depicted by McGuinness not as a dilution of republicanism but as a widening of the struggle. It is this repackaging of republicanism that represents McGuinness’s most substantial contribution to political life in Ireland, and suggests a more sophisticated political thinker than the simple headline of ‘man of war, man of peace’ indicates.
An example of this came at the Sinn Féin ard fheis (party conference) in 1986, when McGuinness spoke in favour of abandoning absentionism in the south of Ireland. Sinn Féin traditionally did not recognise the legitimacy of Dáil Éireann, the parliament in Dublin, and thus their members abstained from taking their seats. In maintaining this purist republican doctrine, McGuinness believed Sinn Féin were missing a trick. In taking their seats in the Dublin parliament, McGuinness argued, Sinn Féin would make ‘the struggle more and more relevant to the Irish people’. He reasoned that there was little point in an abstract ideal when a more pragmatic approach offered a new arena for republican politics.
In 1981, Danny Morrison labelled the fusion of armed struggle and wider political agitation the ‘armalite and ballot box’ strategy. This was initially envisaged a dual strategy; but McGuinness was instrumental in the most significant shift within the republican movement during the 1990s and 2000s, Sinn Féin’s eclipse of the IRA.
This was not a straightforward transition, nor was it inevitable. In opting to contest elections during the early 1980s, republicans took a leap into the dark, with uncertain consequences. There was no guarantee that an electoral strategy would yield results in the long term.
By the late 1980s, republicans came to the conclusion that they couldn’t militarily defeat the British state, just as the British state realised that it could not militarily defeat the IRA. McGuinness was aware that the ‘war’ would end not with a military victory, but negotiated settlement. In this context, Sinn Féin became more vital within republicanism. The challenge was how to wind the ‘war’ down in a manner that did not look like defeat.
Northern Ireland’s tortuous path to peace has taken years to construct, with the Provisionals dragging their feet over a number of issues, particularly the thorny subject of decommissioning their arsenal. It is clear now that McGuinness and the Sinn Féin leadership needed time to push the hardliners within their own ranks towards an unarmed struggle; if compromise came too soon, it would be interpreted as a demand too far for the wider Provisional movement, threatening a destabilising split in the movement.
McGuinness was extremely savvy in judging when republicans should make concessions that were just enough to bring the IRA with him, while furthering Sinn Féin’s peaceful intentions. This was a difficult balancing act, which was painstakingly and carefully achieved. As McGuinness knew, Sinn Féin was nothing if it could not deliver the IRA. This was his great political triumph: creating an non-violent space for republicans to continue to agitate for Irish unity.
Today, Northern Ireland still has sizeable problems, including how to deal with its violent past. There is a peace process, but the peace is uneasy. Brexit has created constitutional uncertainty, victims of the conflict feel they don’t have a voice, and political trust is almost wholly lacking between the major parties. Northern Ireland needs leaders to point the way to reconciliation now more than ever; the death of Martin McGuinness has deprived the troubled country of such leadership.
Colin Reid is a Lecturer in Modern British and Irish History at the University of Sheffield. His research interests lie in exploring the political, cultural and intellectual mentalities at the heart of the British-Irish dilemma from the French Revolution to the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’. You can find him on twitter @Colin_W_Reid.
Image: Barack Obama meets with Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson at the White House in 2009 [Wikicommons].