In August 1979, when Martin McGuinness was the Provisional IRA’s chief of staff, the organisation killed Lord Mountbatten with a remote-controlled bomb on his boat. The 83-year-old dowager Lady Brabourne, the earl’s teenage grandson and a boat boy were also killed. The next day, the IRA killed 18 British soldiers at Warrenpoint, close to the border with the Republic. To McGuinness, such violence was the “cutting edge” of the Irish Republican cause.
Nearly 40 years later, McGuinness dies a mainstream political figure, the former deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, hailed as one of the architects of the peace process and in possession of a reputation that was about much more than violence – even if there are those for whom his past could never be forgotten.
His transformation is most visibly dated to the advent of the peace process in the early 1990s. In 1993, the Observer revealed that McGuinness had been holding secret “back channel” talks with the British security services via a former Catholic priest in Derry, Denis Bradley. The talks were aimed at helping the Provisionals to bring their “armed struggle” to an end. A year later, the PIRA declared a ceasefire of which McGuinness was one of the chief architects.
But it may have begun much earlier. A former senior IRA Derry Brigade commander recalled McGuinness expressing scepticism about the organisation’s continuing violence as early as 1987, when they were about to cross the Irish border for the funeral of a hardline Provisional militant, one of eight who had been shot dead by the SAS.
The eight members of the PIRA’s feared East Tyrone Brigade had been wiped out by a joint SAS and undercover police operation at Loughgall Royal Ulster Constabulary station in Co Armagh that year. They included the Provisionals’ commander in the region, Jim Lynagh.
The driver who took McGuinness to Lynagh’s funeral, in Monaghan Town in the Irish Republic, told the Guardian he was shocked by what the IRA northern commander told him as they were held up at a British army vehicle checkpoint on the border.
“I will never forget Martin looked over from the passenger’s seat and as we were waiting for the Brits and the cops to get out us out the car, to harass us, he said, ‘Do you ever wonder about it all? Do you ever think what is the point of shooting some part-time UDR man [a part-time soldier in a locally recruited British Army regiment] who is delivering milk or driving a school bus? Do you ever think if it’s worth it?’
“I remember at the time thinking that McGuinness was simply trying to test out my loyalty, to put me under pressure to see if I was still loyal to him and the leadership. When I think about that incident now near the border I realise he was trying to sow doubts about the armed struggle. He wasn’t testing me, he was expressing what he really thought, what he intended to do in terms of ditching the ‘armed struggle’.”
McGuinness’s former comrade was later imprisoned for smuggling arms and has since defected to the ranks of dissident republicanism. His claim that McGuinness questioned the continuation of PIRA’s violence even while he was a member of the ruling “army council” raises the tantalising prospect that the late senior Irish republican had been thinking about guiding the movement away from paramilitarism towards politics far earlier than the advent of the peace process in the early 1990s.
While McGuinness’s key role in the peace process has been praised internationally, many of the IRA’s victims during the Troubles said it was important his role in directing 30 years of violence should never be forgotten.
At the start of the Troubles in Derry, McGuinness originally joined the Marxist Official IRA. But when that organisation started to wind its violence down in the early 1970s, he defected to the more hardline Provisionals. He rose quickly through the ranks, having been “talent spotted” by the PIRA’s then Dublin-based leadership.
By 1979, McGuinness had been appointed the PIRA’s chief of staff – in the year that the organisation murdered Mountbatten. He was an unapologetic supporter of violence.
That violence did not end with his first political forays. Two years after McGuinness was stood down as chief of staff of the Provisionals in order to stand as a candidate for Sinn Féin in the 1982 elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, the IRA shot dead Mary Travers, 22, in front of her father and mother outside a Catholic church in south Belfast.
The Provisionals had been trying to kill Mary’s father, Tom Travers, who as a local Catholic magistrate would have been regarded by the IRA as a “collaborator” in the British judicial system, a system Sinn Féin would later embrace and support after the ceasefires and the 1998 Good Friday agreement. Their choice of where to carry out the murder, on the steps of a Catholic church, deepened the outrage over the killing.
Mary Travers’ sister Ann has been campaigning ever since to set the record straight, in her opinion, about the history of the Northern Ireland Troubles. She believes the IRA and Sinn Féin should not be allowed to portray the Provisionals’ armed campaign as somehow an offshoot of the peaceful civil rights movement that had fought to introduce equality for Catholics in the unionist-dominated Northern Irish state pre-1969.
“Losing a loved family member suddenly to violence or illness is heartbreaking,” she said. “Mr McGuinness oversaw a violent terrorist organisation for many years. For the past couple of decades he was given the accolade of peace maker. It’s disappointing and heartbreaking for families of IRA victims that during this period he didn’t give them the answers and acknowledgement that he could have. Today my thoughts are with all the innocents who met their death violently and suddenly, not giving their families the time to adjust and say goodbye.”
Yet even political opponents who would have regarded McGuinness during the Troubles as the personification of all they feared about the IRA now reflect on how he ultimately embraced pragmatic politics.
Nobel peace prize winner David, now Lord, Trimble served in the first power-sharing government with McGuinness in 1998, only months after the Good Friday agreement.
Lord Trimble was then the leader of the largest party in Northern Ireland, the Ulster Unionists, and thus became first minister of the region. At that stage Sinn Féin was still the second largest nationalist party but already the party and in particular McGuinness was impressing even the likes of Trimble.
“I don’t think I can remember any occasion bar one where either during negotiations, or indeed when McGuinness was the local education minister, that he ever lost his temper or shouted at unionists in meetings. Whereas Gerry Adams (the Sinn Féin leader) was more offensive in his dealings with us, McGuinness was always calm, cool and businesslike,” said Trimble.
Trimble said he continued to monitor McGuinness’ career after he had left Northern Ireland. McGuinness’ capacity to seek compromise endured in the year running up to his death, Trimble acknowledged.
He added: “I heard recently from a very senior government minister in Downing Street that they had to call in McGuinness last year to act as a peacemaker between London and the Scots Nats!
“On the joint ministerial council between the devolved governments of Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast – in co-operation with the national government in London – there was a lot of shouting, a lot of bad blood. It was caused by the Scottish nationalists roaring and ranting against central government representatives who eventually called in McGuinness for help.
“By contrast Martin McGuinness was calm and rational, and he helped turn down the temperature at that meeting.”
Asked why in the end McGuinness has chosen compromise over revolutionary armed conflict, Lord Trimble said: “Compared to Gerry Adams, McGuinness was a more affable character, more easy to do business with, more human … he understood the push and pull factors of politics. The ‘push’ being that the IRA campaign was doomed to failure, the ‘pull’ being that politics would enable Sinn Féin to move forward politically.”
“I suppose, in the end, he was a realist.”