“He was a terrorist.” Perhaps. He was also a civil rights activist, a respected politician and a representative of his people, who was fundamentally anti colonialist, anti-oppression and pro-justice and equality. He was all of these: none of these character traits can be ignored or avoided, and the reality is that they combined to make up the man who has left an indelible mark on Anglo-Irish relations.
To reduce McGuinness to being a terrorist is to ignore the complexities of a character that only reflected the intricate nuances of his situation. It is to ignore his achievements in the political sphere and it is to invalidate the whole peace process in Northern Ireland.
Without justifying McGuinness’ actions as leader of the IRA in the 1970s, it is necessary to contextualise them. It is only by understanding the context, that the fundamental issues behind the cause and the conflict can be properly engaged – set in a backdrop of colonialist social injustice and institutional corruption.
In the same way that we can not gloss over the inexcusable murders throughout The Troubles to romanticise the cause, we cannot deny the very real discrimination and oppression that existed in Northern Ireland; the same discrimination and oppression McGuinness continued to rail against as he turned away from violence and became an elected politician. Therein lies what should be the crux of his legacy: a man who reformed his ways to pursue what he believed in.
And this personal reformation included so much more than his own life story. McGuinness came to recognise that the republican cause could only garner legitimacy through establishment politics. By becoming Sinn Féin’s chief negotiator in the peace process, he became an integral figure in the action that finally bought an end to The Troubles. Troubles that had claimed thousands of lives during the previous four decades. Troubles that would not have come to an end had it not been for leading figures on both sides of a conflict.
As a former leader of the IRA, McGuinness used his sway to bring those, who would otherwise continue to engage in paramilitary activity to the negotiating table. Where the IRA had previously considered violence to be the only means of communication that the British could understand, based on their history of colonialism, Martin McGuinness was one of the leaders who altered this belief – showing how politics and diplomacy could be engaged to pursue the same goals of republicanism and equality.
The same ruthlessness he displayed as leader of the IRA, carried through to his political career. As Tony Blair acknowledged, this ruthlessness was directed and used to forge the Good Friday agreement, as he was one of the only at the negotiating table who was genuinely risking his life through his participation in the reconciliation process. The courage exhibited by McGuinness and the others behind such reform at such tempestuous times cannot be understated.
Sectarian violence has still not completely disappeared from Northern Ireland, and visceral republican and unionist sentiment alike continues to run deep throughout a disputed territory, where there are still walls to separate Catholic communities from Protestant ones, but it has come a long way. This is largely down to those leading figures who stepped away from violence to broker a peace deal, to in turn set a foundation for progressive political discourse. That is how Martin McGuinness should be remembered – as a flagship of reform, and a leading light in achieving peace when it seemed impossible.
We can elect to wilfully ignore the nuances and simplistically portray him as an “end-of” terrorist, or we can recognise the flaws and acknowledge the success of a man who fought for what he believed in, via many guises, throughout his life.
If nothing else, Martin McGuinness should be held up a symbol of the human condition – a man with his flaws, but when given the opportunity, a man who changed his ways, reformed and came to contribute inestimable worth to his community.