Current Affairs History Irish Republican Politics

Martin McGuinness, From Revolutionary To Statesman, 1950–2017

Though not entirely unexpected, the announcement of Martin McGuinness’ premature death through illness is still shocking in its own quiet way. For many republicans his decades long presence on the national stage, be it as a revolutionary or a politician, was a familiar and reassuring one. If Tom Barry or Liam Lynch were seen as symbols of resistance against foreign colonial rule at the start of the 20th century, then the Derry man was seen by many as their counterpart at the end of the century. Fifty years may have separated their respective struggles but the cause remained broadly the same.

Baptised James Martin Pacelli, McGuinness grew up in the city of Derry in the British occupied north-east of Ireland during the 1950s and ’60s. His late teens coincided with the emergence of the Irish civil rights movement as the northern nationalist community protested the system of ethno-sectarian apartheid imposed upon it by the ruling unionist regime at Stormont. Unfortunately the demonstrations and marches of the period were met with violence and persecution. By the summer of 1970 a fully-formed armed insurgency had emerged from the failure of peaceful protest to drive substantive change in the Six Counties. It was during this latter period that the teenage McGuinness found himself drawn to those protecting the nationalist enclaves of Derry from the depredations of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), the regional paramilitary police, and various pro-British terror gangs.

Sometime between 1969 and 1971 McGuinness was sworn in as a volunteer or soldier of the Derry Brigade, (Provisional) Irish Republican Army. Rising through the ranks he reached the position of brigade-adjutant in 1972, regarded by many as the unit’s second-in-command. Within a year he was serving as the city’s brigadier, the officer commanding (OC) the IRA in the region, with close ties to the General Headquarters (GHQ) Staff in Dublin and the ruling Army Council above that. McGuinness’ prominent position qualified him for inclusion on the Irish republican delegation flown over to Britain on a military transport plane in 1972 for peace talks with the then UK government of prime minister Edward Heath (the covert negotiations took place under the aegis of an agreed ceasefire which was broken by the British army during an attack on nationalist refugees being rehoused in Belfast).

By 1974 he was serving as the Director of Operations with the GHQ Staff, adding the position of general officer commanding (GOC) of the newly formed Northern Command in 1975-76. This was a key position as the Republican Army reorganised itself on the basis of cellular battle groups known as Active Service Units rather than the old system of territorial sections, companies, battalions and brigades. The success of this wartime transition saw McGuinness gain a promotion in 1978 to the all-important role of chief of staff (CS), effectively the head of the IRA as whole, answerable only to the policy-makers on the Army Council (which automatically granted him a seat). This placed him in the company of the most important activists within the guerrilla movement, including the adjutant-general (AG) and the quarter-master general (QMG), both sitting on the Army Council, as well as nine other members of the GHQ Staff, including the directors of Operations, Intelligence, Engineering, Finance and Publicity.

In 1982 McGuinness decided to successfully stand for election as a Sinn Féin candidate in Derry during an early attempt to establish a reformed regional assembly in the north-east of the country, largely initiated by a frustrated and despairing British government. At the insistence of a majority on the Army Council, the Derryman resigned his position as chief of staff, though he retained his senior rank within the Army. However this early test of the electoral system, coupled with previous successes of the H-Block or Hunger Strike candidates in the early ’80s, proved to many republicans that a dual strategy of “Armalite and ballot box” was the way forward.

Around 1985-86 McGuinness once again returned to the role of GOC Northern Command, having served temporarily as the adjutant-general, directing a major increase in operations by the IRA. The military offensive of the late 1980s and early ’90s coincided with his role as a central figure in “back channel” negotiations between the Republican Movement and the UK, eventually leading to the carefully choreographed Irish-British peace process. Without his steady and influential presence it is doubtful that the thirty-year armed struggle of the Irish Republican Army would have come to a relatively disciplined and ordered end, beginning with the ceasefires of 1994 and ’97, and the final cessation announcement in 2005.

Throughout his revolutionary career, as British governments and prime ministers, generals and secretary of states, came and went Martin McGuinness, like his comrade Gerry Adams, remained and endured. In the words of the Irish republican motto:

“It is not those who can inflict the most, but those who can suffer the most who will conquer.”

In the end, only death itself could defeat the undefeated freedom fighter from Derry.




39 comments on “Martin McGuinness, From Revolutionary To Statesman, 1950–2017

  1. Respect to Mr. McGuinness and condolences to his family and friends.

    • Thanks, Elizabeth. A strange day. He was there all my adult life, a republican totem, who I agreed and disagreed with on many things. We will feel his loss keenly in the coming years as Brexit and a nationalist majority in the north-east becomes a reality on this island.

      • Similarly for me too his being there forever. I’m trying to remember when he became a presence, I’d think very late 70s or early 80s, before that of course the different leadership were in place and RÓB etc were in place. Agreed to his loss is at a particular point, not a good one either and will be very much felt and obviously so in the months and years to come.

        • “presence” in the sense of when I first became aware of him!

        • For me he became a recognisable republican figure in the late 1980s and ’90s, always on television or referenced in one form or another, following the various media bans in Ireland the UK. It is odd to think of SF, or the wider movement, without him. And perhaps problematic in the coming months as Article 50 is triggered and all that will flow from it. One hears that the talks about talks in relation to a new power-sharing executive at Stormont are going nowhere. I wonder would that be the case with McGuinness in his peace-maker prime?

          • I just barely remember the RÓB leadership, and as it happens I rather admire though would have distinct political differences with him and them. There was a definite changing of the guard with Adams, McGuinness et al. I think it was a positive and necessary development, for a lot of reasons, not least that Belfast (and Derry) was always key and trying to run matters, even rhetorically from Dublin was a fools game (and others found that to be the case as we know in different organisations).

            • I had a good deal of respect for Ó Brádaigh myself, in the sense of he being an indefatigable republican. He was like a curmudgeonly uncle you couldn’t help but be tolerant of. Those who now claim to be the holders of his legacy on the other hand are a fairly despicable crew.

  2. Seán MacBhloscaidh

    Bhí mé ag súil do píosa seo inniu. GRMA

  3. Truth be told

    Lets not forget the innocent victims whose blood he needlessly spilled.

    • Some blood was needlessly spilled, undoubtedly. But as Gerry Adams pointed out, Martin McGuinness never went to war – the war came to him.

  4. the Phoenix

    McGuinness was a traitor and probably a British agent as far back as 1972. He destroyed Derry brigade and went on to neuter,disarm and dismantle one of the greatest guerilla armies in the world. He called republicans traitors,criminals and terrorists. He supported the psni/ruc. Met his queen. He was british politician who enforced british rule in the 6 counties while encouraging the gaoling of republicans. He was a coward and a traitor. He is being lauded by the mainstream media and by british politicians. No real republicans will mourn him. He earned the hatred of republicans. He will take many secrets to his grave. Good riddance to the scumbag.

    • Assume you’re right, that he was a British agent as far back as 72 (why not earlier, after all he joined OSF briefly). Does it not strike you as curious that he was followed by so many? What does that tell you about the credulity of volunteers and supporters? And if they were that credulous and over such a long period a generation after generation emerged then what hope any resistance at all, what possible faith or hope could you place in PIRA during that period or after? Your own logic suggests that it was a crazed enterprise from the start. How on earth could this ‘agent’ have earned the trust and admiration and respect of so many? Is it tenable that he was indeed an ‘agent’ in that context? Or is it more likely that like most volunteers and supporters his analysis of the situation entailed a different approach? I don’t know about a traitor but a coward? Easier by far to slide out of public view rather than present himself as a target on a continual basis. And finally who are you to determine who is or who is not a republican? Or me either to determine it? What is a republican but someone who wants the unity of this island under republican structures and will actively work towards it? That counts out the FFers and so on. But it does incorporate a fairly wide range of people for whom, like most of us here that is our objective. And take it further, say you’re right, and that only a tiny sliver of people are ‘republicans’, where does that leave those who vote for SF for example? What are they? Traitors and cowards? Is it sensible to dismiss so many? And you dismiss those, including those SF supporters and voters etc who regard McGuinness in some esteem. Not a great base to work from.

      • the Phoenix

        Many suspected him to be an agent as far back as the 70s. They were afraid to speak up for fear of being killed. Scapp was an agent too. People followed and supported him to the end. As for being a target Martin had nothing to fear. He was a protected species. Anyone who denounces republicans as terrorists and criminals is not a republican.

        • Do you really believe, as the main conspiracy theory goes, that Martin McGuinness was recruited in 1972 by Michael Oatley, the MI6 intelligence officer, at the Cheyne Walk negotiations in Chelsea, London? C’mon. Again, it took McGuinness some thirty years to bring about a final cessation. He was in almost every key role during that time. By the late 1970s he had served as GOC NorCom, on the GHQ Staff, CofS, on the AC, etc. It’s simply not plausible.

          • the Phoenix

            Actually it is. He dismantled one of the greatest guerilla armies of all time. Is it plausible to you that a man who was the public face of the provos who was known worldwide went home every evening without fear of arrest or attempts on his life?

        • Ah, I don’t know. I’ve met plenty of republicans who have denounced other republicans. You’re actually, if you think about it, doing the same. In relation to being a target it takes just one person who can’t stand the sight of him and wants to see him gone. No such thing as a protected species.

          Anyhow, these ‘many’ clearly didn’t include the overwhelming majority of volunteers or SF members.. so who were they? And I’m more than old enough to remember 1986, and 1981/2 and I’ve got to be honest the idea that McGuinness was a British agent wasn’t something that was put around then or after even by those who went with RSF. I can’t see RÓB being intimated by Scapp. Can you? This isn’t to say there weren’t massive divisions over the issue of abstentionism etc.

          And given the nature of the operations carried out well into the early 1990s but in particular in the mid 1980s the idea that he was an agent just seems absurd. We all know the names of ones that came incredibly close to taking out political leaderships across the water. I find it near impossible that anyone with any influence who was a British agent would have allowed them to proceed – it’s like ASF says below, thirty years and right through the organisation. And to what end, with the distant possibility he might thirty years later still be close to or in the leadership (which by the by was a massively long bet given the turnover experienced in the pre 70s IRA) and be able to bring his influence to bear in shutting it all down. That’s just improbability piled on improbability.

          Sure Scapp was indeed an agent, but he wasn’t a leader as such, and there’s no real surprise people throughout it were agents – like all organisations of its type it was prone to penetration by British intelligence. But I think the most convincing argument against it being manipulated in the way that you suggest is that it sustained a broad range of operations across decades that were deeply injurious to British national interest. Massively so. The second argument is how long it took to stop. it didn’t happen overnight. The third one is that you can’t force people where they don’t want to go. All those volunteers, members, supporters could have pushed back.

          It would be much better if people sat down and thought through why eventually the situation moved from one of very very sustained armed struggle to one where an exclusively political approach was adopted. And – although this is a tangent – it might be worth thinking about the implausibility of a sustained armed struggle in a world of 9/11 etc. It could be that the greatest luck Republicanism had was shifting away from armed struggle well before that rather than having to struggle through in a world of massive surveillance, counterintelligence, etc. Trying to map the 1970s or even the 1980s onto the world of the 2000s and 2010s is not something that gives me any sense that the struggle would have been able to continue in any meaningful or effective sense.

    • TurboFurbo

      Martin McGuinness will go down as one of the greatest people this country ever produced and a giant in Irish history.

    • Phoenix, as others have pointed out, and as I have said to you repeatedly, if McGuinness was recruited as a British agent in 1972 it took him thirty-three years to bring about an IRA cessation in 2005. And this despite the fact that he was a member of the GHQ Staff and Army Council throughout most of those three decades, including serving as Chief of Staff, as well as vice-president of Sinn Féin and on the Ard Chomhairle.

      That surely would make him the most ineffective spy in history!

      This is the same nonsense we hear in relation to Michael Collins and the Truce-Treaty period of 1921.

      One does not have to be a traitor to change one’s mind or one’s tactics.

      McGuinness remained a republican to the end, and though I disagreed with him on some things – abortion, the “traitors” to Ireland remark, being too soft with unionists, etc. – it would be foolish in the extreme to deny him his well-deserved place in Irish history.

      He will be remembered and respected by future generations as a patriot when you and I lie forgotten in our graves.

      • the Phoenix

        Have a look at how Derry was folded up so fast. Derry was one of the most feared brigades in early 70s. By late 70s they were virtually inactive. This was Martin’s doing. If Martin is such a hero to you do you support his calling republicans traitors,criminals and terrorists? Brian Keenan thought Martin was an agent in the late 70s.

      • the Phoenix

        Find me any member of RSF,eirigi,Saoradh,RNU,IRSP or any other republican group who has a smidgen of respect for Martin or doesn’t consider him to be a traitor. I defy you to find one.

      • the Phoenix

        Ask anyone from RSF,eirigi,32csm,Saoradh,RNU or IRSP their opinion on McGuinness and get back to me. Lets see if their opinion is the same as mine or yours.

        • As far as I know none of those organisations have issued a statement on the passing of McGuinness, beyond some private utterances, which is shameful. It shows how far, how detached, they are from political reality as it applies to contemporary Ireland. They are utterly devoid of political acumen, of any real understanding of how politics work. They have allowed dogmatic ideology to blind them to the power of realpolitik. The former is a block to progress and growth, the latter is a mechanism to achieve worthwhile goals and objectives.

          Even éirígí, which I was formerly quite fond of, has thrown away the last of its credibility by pursuing an anti-EU policy, reflected in its support for Brexit.

          The so-called “dissidents” are idiots, fools and knaves.

          As someone who is eager for a plurality of republican representation I despair…

  5. the Phoenix

    Bill Clinton and Tony Bliar will attend Martin’s funeral. If a rapist and war criminal are attending your funeral you did something wrong in life.

  6. James McGettigan

    With all due respect, Phoenix, do you have any concrete proof that Mr McGuinness was what you say he is? To me the smears come very close to classic, standard disinformation, typically spread by institutional intelligence agencies to undermine the enemy’s credibility. Thanks.

    • the Phoenix

      I have already provided evidence. And it has always been the brits who have fostered the myth that McGuinness was a hard man and hawk. That he took the lives of many british soldiers yet was never gaoled for a day and never had an attempt on his life. You explain why he led such a charmed existence.

      • I don’t think you’ve produced anything that comes close to ‘evidence’. You’ve offered unreferenced anecdote and hearsay. The least you could do is provide some links say to some research or writings on this matter. Not just Keenan thought x in the 1970s. And by the way, given Keenan’s own leadership role he sure took his time doing anything about in relation to McGuinness if that was his genuine belief in the 1970s. Imagine being in an organisation and sharing a position on the AC with someone you were convinced was a British agent. And staying in the organisation for another fifteen years! It just isn’t credible. For ones own safety if nothing else one would do something or walk.

        • Like Brendan Hughes?

        • the Phoenix

          It really doesn’t matter if Martin was an agent in the early years. He was openly pro british in his later years.

          • But it really does matter because if he was an agent all along that tells us a lot of things about him, the organisation he was part of etc. As for his being pro-British, I’m conflicted about meeting the Queen etc but… the argument that pushes me towards engagement is that unionism and unionists can’t be wished away nor can their identity, and if Republicans lead by example and demonstrate that they remain staunchly in favour of a UI while simultaneously being courteous but not obsequious to the reps of the English and those that unionists respect that’s fair enough. I know given the claim and actuality of control of territory that this isn’t easy for many. But it’s about broadening the reach of republicanism, showing how different it is to unionism or nationalism. And I think that works too. Look how Foster is regarded these days as against McGuinness. Look how pro UI sentiment is regarded as legitimate after decades of the opposite (though Brexit has helped there too). Look how the word Republican isn’t seen as a negative. I was reading an account of an RSF member in Cork who said a UI was never further away. I always had considerable respect for RÓB’s principled stance despite disagreeing with his approach but it seemed to me that that member was overstating matters a fair bit. It seems to me that a UI while still distant is actually closer than at any time in my life and I’m 51. Or possibly much longer .

      • James McGettigan

        An excellent question indeed, especially if his contemporaries, comrades and fellow lieutenants were convinced that he was selling them out. I would think that at the very least, a visit by the nutting squad would have been the very minimum. Why wasn’t he disciplined by his own people if he was concluded to be a British agent?

        • I will not get into the debate about Martin McGuinness, but I would just say that even within the ranks of the IRA there would’ve been an awareness and even fear of meeting the so called ‘nutting squad’. Volunteers would find the tables turned if they made allegations without ‘proof’ against a fellow volunteer.
          Btw, I recall a daughter of an IRA man, who was executed for being an alleged informer in the mid eighties, speaking on the news in the early noughties. She was pleading with the republican movement to clear her fathers name I.e that he wasn’t a tout.
          This lady only spoke out after promising her mother that she wouldn’t say anything as long as her mum was alive. Anyways, her mum told her that the night before her father died he told his wife that he was going to meet some chiefs because he thought he knew ‘who was the tout'(one would suspect he was going to meet those who dealt with such things I.e nutting squad?). He told the wife not to worry if he was away for a few days(nothing unusual for a volunteer one suspects). Anyways within 24 hours the father was shot and dumped in an alleyway and the IRA claimed he was an informer.
          According to her mother, leading republicans in the area attended the wake and funeral(highly unusual?) and apparently Danny Mc Cann told her that he did not believe the informer accusation and that he was ‘going to get to the bottom of it’. Alas within a few months Danny Mc Cann was murdered in Gibraltar with his two comrades.

          • James McGettigan

            One also has to wonder, given the claims of up to 50% infiltration of both factions by the intelligence communities, how many “innocent” paramilitaries were disposed of erroneously by their own respective sides.

            • I don’t disagree Wolfe tone re your points on the nutting squad, but Phoenix has suggested that someone at the top of the pyramid was unable to exercise any influence and just stayed put? That surely doesn’t make sense.

              Just on the broad issue of infiltration having worked with parts of the left and having friends involved in various republican socialist formations over the years I’ve often wondered who sitting around a given table might be compromised. There’s no way to tell. But I figure that one has to assume that the person one is dealing with isn’t unless there’s significant evidence to the contrary. We’ve seen how organisations have been torn apart by infiltration claims. On the other hand I also think there’s a self-limiting aspect to this, that the damage they can potentially cause, even indirectly, is lesser than might be expected if only because so little of this is driven by one person. Again it comes down to why do groups shift position. However persuasive one person is that’s not enough. Consider how the republican movement split in 69/70 over abstention. Of course it wasn’t just over that – there was an issue of ideological orientation, and Belfast as against Dublin. But it was at least in part a key part of it. Yet sixteen years later for sufficient republicans abstention wasn’t the issue it had been sixteen years earlier. Given the depth of feeling on the issue in 69/70 however persuasive one person was that wouldn’t have done the trick. It required sixteen years of various approaches, a sense that the South might open up a new political context, the sense that politics might deliver some benefits, a sense that the conflict was being contained to some degree. And so on. And of course ultimately a range of people arguing that that didn’t signify the end of the armed struggle. Which it didn’t for quite a while after. So focusing on one person as key seems a bit of a problem. Not denying the importance of McGuinness but it took much much more than him.

              JM, that’s a very fair point too.

              • the Phoenix

                Unable to exercise any influence??? Derry brigade was folded up by the early 80s under McGuinness,East Tyrone got compromised and annihilated,Gibraltar and countless others were compromised,why wasn’t McGuinness named in the supergrass trials?

              • Well if reports are true that scap was succeeded by Donaldson as head of ‘nutting squads’ it would suggest either senior republicans were at best naive or at worst, something more sinister. It would also confirm ordinary volunteers had genuine reasons for fearing to voice suspicions in case they had to encounter the nutting squad.
                Let’s be honest most people do not know these senior republicans other than what they read or hear from the media. I would also say most volunteers wouldn’t know the same senior republicans even though they would be viewed as being closer to them than ordinary members of the public. And yet it would appear at times, ordinary members of the public would contest that they know these republicans better?

              • The Phoenix, that’s just a list of events that occurred. Again what evidence is that they’re related or related to McGuinness? I’ve already raised the point that there was infiltration and a fair bit of it. That was and remains a part and parcel of organisations, there’s no way of stopping it. But in a way what you’re doing is placing a lot of ‘influence’ on one person. You’re welcome to believe what you want, but many people will be sceptical because it wasn’t just one person involved and that wasn’t the only dynamic in operation (to throw in just a couple – the fact that FF in the south under Haughey was willing to push back against Republicanism while rhetorically indicating otherwise, increasing isolation contributed to in part by the simple length of the conflict, better intelligence on the part of the RUC etc due to same and improved technology, and so on). Again, even ops being compromised wouldn’t inevitably lead to a change of heart. That can’t be the root reason for changing attitudes.

              • It’s near impossible to know for sure Wolfe tone (and that’s another fair point about people inside an organisation not knowing each other), but I’ve always been struck by the degree of naivety in all this. But take people on the AC, they’d be different to ordinary volunteers. If they genuinely felt there was an issue… And it’s not as if they wouldn’t have had good reason, particularly in the 1990-97 period, to probe and to use whatever resources they could to see what was going on and perhaps even whether political opponents were compromised. And if they tgenuinely believed that this was an issue, as framed by the Phoenix, why was this not shouted from the rooftops more broadly, say through media contacts, etc? Surely it would have been key to destabilise in whatever means possible sections of a leadership who were compromised?

        • the Phoenix

          He was high ranking and powerful. Anyone who made the claim he was an agent would have been visited by the nutting squad themselves.

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