Martin McGuinness, personification of republicanism

On October 24 1990, a Derry man Patsy Gillespie was abducted by the IRA, tied to the driver’s seat of a van and told to drive the van packed with explosives to a British Army checkpoint on the border with Donegal.  While doing so his wife and children were held at gunpoint.  Two other such bombs were also delivered to targets on the border on the same day.  Using others to deliver bombs was a well-known IRA tactic and almost inevitably the driver got out at the target and warned of the bomb.

This time however the bomb was to be detonated by remote control or by the door of the van being opened, which Patsy Gallagher did as he struggled to free himself and get out of the van.  When it opened five British soldiers and Patsy Gallagher were killed; the largest part of him to be retrieved afterwards was part of his hand.  The use of a ‘human bomb’, as it was quickly called, caused widespread revulsion, including among nationalists.

Patsy Gallagher was killed because, according to the IRA, he was “a part of the British war machine”. He had been warned to leave his job because he worked at a British army base, as a cook.  He was, to use a more old-fashioned phase, a ‘collaborator.’

The deployment of three such attacks on the one day would had to have been sanctioned by the Northern Command of the IRA, whose Officer Commanding was Martin McGuinness.

Just under a decade later he was Minister of Education in the Northern Ireland Executive, the administration devolved from Westminster.  His Sinn Fein colleague in the Executive was Bairbre de Brun, who was Minister of Health.  One of her more important acts was to launch a review of acute services in Northern Ireland: “I want to hear all the arguments and weigh up the options before taking any final decisions. To put me in a position to take the necessary decisions, I need measured, informed and objective advice on how acute services can best be developed to meet the needs of our people.”

To lead this review she appointed a well-known figure, Maurice Hayes.  He had been the most senior Catholic civil servant at Stormont, supplying weekly reports on politics in the Irish State to the Northern Ireland Executive in 1974; later becoming head of personnel for the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Permanent Secretary of the Department of Health and Social Services and later Northern Ireland Ombudsman. He was Electoral Boundary Commissioner, a Senior Advisor to the Chair of the Constitutional Convention, a member of Lord Patten’s Commission to reform the police in the North of Ireland, and authored the report which led to the establishment of the office of Police Ombudsman.

In other words it could be said, if one wanted to, that when Sinn Fein got into office they asked the most senior ‘collaborator’ around to help them decide what they were going to do now they had got there.

Nothing epitomises the evolution of republican politics in the North of Ireland so much as the sequence of these two events.  In fact, it could be said that no two events define republican politics so much as the conjunction of these two events.  All the more important because they are now either forgotten, or, in the second case, were barely noticed at the time.

Of course, Martin McGuinness was later denounced for various actions by other republicans, including his condemnation of these republicans as traitors for shooting British troops; and for toasting the Queen in white tie and tails at Windsor Castle.  These were high-profile events but they were mainly symbolic.  The killing of Patsy Gallagher for being “a part of the British war machine” while hiring the biggest ‘castle Catholic’ when it entered office were not symbolic but very real.  These events tell us most of what we need to know about the politics of Martin McGuinness and Sinn Fein.

A working class cook had become a ‘legitimate target’ in a war which, when it ended, they could think of nothing better than to ask one of the most prominent Catholic establishment figures for advice on what they should do.  Militarist ‘anti-imperialism’ gave way to equally ineffective subordination as a parliamentary ‘opposition’ to British rule, an opposition that involved not being in opposition but being in government.  And with a party so right wing its antediluvian views resembles closely the most rabid base of Donald Trump.

Throughout their evolution, no matter what its twists and turns, the movement exhibited a complete lack of class politics.  The socialist opinions of some masked the right-wing politics of the movement as a whole.  As the old adage goes, opinions are like assholes – everyone’s got one.

The movement has been a vivid demonstration of lessons not widely enough appreciated – that ‘anti-imperialism’ does not necessitate socialism and that a predominantly working class base does not equate to politics defined by class.  A socialist assessment of the political life of Martin McGuinness that does not register these facts is worthless.

This is important because the political assessment of someone’s life often becomes more important than that life’s impact when it was lived.  Gerry Adams claimed that “Martin McGuinness never went to war, the war came to him.”  But this of course is untrue.

Martin McGuinness and the Provisional IRA did go to war.  The necessity for armed defence against sectarian pogroms was usurped by the Provisional IRA into a conscious offensive war that promised victory ’72, ’73 etc. It was they who claimed that only the IRA and its armed struggle could bring victory, by which they meant a united Ireland; but their struggle degenerated as the British State inevitably crushed it by its superior power.   They failed so comprehensively they now pretend this war was about something other than declared at the time, all about equality and not ‘Brits Out’.  In all this Martin McGuinness played a leading role.

I remember being asked by the wife of a republican whether I thought Martin McGuinness was a British spy.  Not because I had any more knowledge of the secret war than she had, because I was pretty sure I had less, but because despite this she really didn’t have a clue, or rather the clues were useless.  She simply wanted another opinion of someone who might have thought about it from a different perspective from her own.  The important point is that it was a legitimate question and one that will probably never go away (see the posts here and here.)

Politically it doesn’t really matter, because informers are as much a part of the republican movement and its history as anything else.  Secret conspiracies are particularly vulnerable to much more powerful secret conspiracies to counter them, and the British state is not short on this resource.  The role any individual can play is limited in most circumstances and particularly so  in the oppressive circumstances in which McGuinness was politically active.

His legacy is one of a failed armed campaign and collapsed political arrangements at Stormont that he fought doggedly to promote.  But the grubby reality of the latter is as clear as the brutality of the former.  This includes broken Sinn Fein promises to oppose welfare cuts and support for austerity and sectarian patronage.

No amount of media spin, lamenting the botched implementation of a renewable energy scheme, or failure of the institutions to deliver effective government, can hide the fact that the scheme was not botched – it worked perfectly – and Stormont is still effective in containing politics within sectarian boundaries, even when it only functions as a prize still to be realised.

In the latter part of his political career Martin McGuinness must be judged on both his pursuit of such an unworthy goal and his failure to achieve its lasting implementation.  To rephrase slightly: pity the land that needs heroes and sad the land that needs one like this.


The decay of Stormont and Sinn Fein

martin-mcguinness-resigns-2_-lewisWhen a dreadfully ill-looking Martin McGuinness appeared on television to announce his resignation as Deputy First Minister he perfectly personified the alarming state of Sinn Fein strategy.  Whatever about the nature of his illness there is nothing secret about the utter failure of the latter  The repeated response of Sinn Fein to republican critics that these detractors had no strategy to bring about their goals has itself been exposed, as their own policy has become a self-declared failure.

The resignation letter of McGuinness put a poor gloss on a hasty decision that was forced on the party and which it dearly sought to avoid.  Recent actions betrayed a desperation to save its position in the Stormont regime and thereby the regime itself.  It opposed a public inquiry into a scandalous Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) Scheme, designed to protect the climate by giving participants £160 for every £100 they spent on burning wooden pellets.  Unlike the British scheme no limit was set on how much was to be spent on the incentive to burn as much as one could.  It was indefensible and in any other liberal democracy, such as Northern Ireland pretends to be, it would have led to a resignation.

Sinn Fein opposed a vote of no confidence in the First Minister Arlene Foster, responsible for the scheme, explicitly stating it was because it wished to save the Stormont institutions.  It also opposed a public inquiry into the scheme because it knew that the Democratic Unionist Party would not wear it.  It hoped instead that a call for Foster to merely step aside for a few weeks, while some fig-leaf of an investigation did the needful in calming the political waters, would be agreeable.  However, the DUP advanced the age-old ‘not an inch’ approach of unionism to reject its request for the pathetic.

To rub salt into the wounds, just before Christmas the DUP Culture Minister withdrew the small bursary scheme, costing only £50,000, for children to attend the Gaeltacht to learn Irish.  The widespread suspicion that millions were being given to well-connected DUP supporters through the RHI scheme sat beside the vindictive insult to Irish language enthusiasts who are overwhelmingly Catholic.

McGuinness has accused the DUP of arrogance, to which it might be tempting to say that it takes one to know one, where the DUP not in a league of their own. Nevertheless, they made for a workable double act for 10 years and the DUP has not recently changed its spots.

The personal arrogance or otherwise of Arlene Foster (she hardly hides it) confuted the media-attempted creation of yet another new ‘moderate’ Unionist leader and is hardly the point.  Expecting a Unionist leader to show humility ignores the laager supremacist ideology with which unionism is inseparably entwined, summed up in its primitive slogans of ‘not an inch’, ‘this we will maintain’, ‘we can do no other’, ‘no surrender’ and ‘we are the people’, all testament to an utterly reactionary movement.

Sinn Fein sat for ten years promising and not delivering, promising equality while delivering sectarian division; promising to oppose austerity while imposing it; promising opposition to welfare reform while handing powers to Westminster to ensure it was implemented, and within the last year promising a ‘Fresh Start’ and a ‘united Executive’, which produced the old, stale smell of bigotry and bitter animosity.

It failed and its complaint about the failure of the Good Friday Agreement is its own failure – the DUP are not complaining about any such failure.  So sewn up has Sinn Fein been that when McGuinness resigned over the RHI scheme the DUP straight away cynically announced its support for a judicial inquiry, leaving Sinn Fein as the only party not to support one.

It promises no return to the status quo following the resignation.  But how is it going to convince anyone that it can go back into office with the DUP and deliver anything different from the last decade of failure?

We should be clear.  It was not RHI that forced Sinn Fein out.  As we have seen it was prepared to give the DUP a way out.  It has known about this scandal for a year and did nothing.  It put up with unionist arrogance and sectarianism for 10 years on the basis that it too had its own sectarian spoils to dispense.  It hasn’t all of a sudden become remorseful at broken promises: once it abandoned armed struggle against the British state the Provisionals had no principles left.

McGuinness resigned because Sinn Fein’s humiliation was so comprehensive its base were leaving it – through increased Catholic abstention and grumblings even from the membership.  The election of two People before Profit candidates in West Belfast and Derry was a warning that it could face an alternative.  DUP arrogance was a factor to the extent that it knew its predicament wasn’t going to change – Foster and the DUP were openly flouting the rules that both parties were deemed to be equal and could only act together.

Some will see these events as proof that the Northern State is irreformable.  McGuinness’s statement was careful to include the British in the cast of those to blame.  A local Stormont regime steeped in sectarianism has never been unpalatable for the British and Sinn Fein is not now presenting them as the necessary factor in making unionism more amenable to equality of sectarian division.  The final proof of the irreformability of the Northern State, in the sense of its inherent sectarian nature, is that it is more than likely that any election will return the same two forces as the largest parties.

The Stormont regime provides evidence of the instability of a sectarian carve-up.  While almost all commentators and political parties have lamented the loss of credibility of the political settlement through the RHI scandal, this is its only progressive outcome.  Stormont is destroying itself.  What matters for socialists is that some steps are taken by workers to build an alternative.