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Brian Feeney: McGuinness was demonised but will be hard man to follow

Martin McGuinness has announced he is quitting electoral politics. Picture by Niall Carson, Press Association

In 2000 Martin McGuinness joined a long line of men reviled and demonised by British politicians, by the disgusting British tabloid press and media in general who took on ministerial office.

Jomo Kenyatta, a Mau Mau leader who put the fear of God into British troops and planters in Kenya, jailed in 1953, prime minister of Kenya in 1963.

Robert Mugabe, jailed by the British and later President of Zimbabwe, still a hate figure for the British who were stealing land there as late as the 1940s.

Archbishop Makarios, exiled to the Seychelles in 1956, running Cyprus in 1974.

Yet all of these men and many others wanted to make a deal with the British, in McGuinness’s case as part of an IRA delegation in talks in 1972 with the first proconsul in the north, Willie Whitelaw.

As far as the British public was concerned McGuinness, in the tradition British politicians had adopted since the Easter Rising, was cast as inhuman, some kind of crazed, deranged Anglophobe devoid of political aims or ideals.

Nothing could be further from the truth, as became evident once McGuinness emerged from the shadows.

Of course it’s true Martin McGuinness had deservedly earned a reputation as a ruthless, steely-nerved IRA OC in Derry. A non-smoking virtual tee-totaller, he could easily be portrayed as a fanatic.

Yet for those who knew him it was readily accepted that there was another side to his character.

Did anyone imagine for a moment that McGuinness and those around him in the IRA leadership wanted to continue living a life on the run for decades? That he did not have political objectives both short and long term that he pursued just as relentlessly as he organised IRA operations throughout the north and England?

The qualities of patience and determination he displayed during interminable talks with Brendan Duddy, the go-between in Derry for years with MI6 and later the British, were equally in evidence in the past 10 years putting up with insults, provocation and arrogance from the DUP in particular and unionists in general.

His earlier IRA career and reputation uniquely fitted him for his role as chief conciliator with the British establishment.

His ‘good cop/bad cop’ partnership with Gerry Adams in the past 25 years served republicans in good stead in their political development from a ‘Brits out’ movement to sharing power with unionists, a development sadly not reciprocated.

It took the British 20 years from 1972 to accept the IRA wanted a peaceful settlement. In the 18 years from 1998 no-one has done more than McGuinness to convince unionists of his good faith and determination to work with them in full partnership.

Unfortunately no-one emerged on the unionist side with anything approaching the same stature, political ability and personal charm to match McGuinness.

It should also be said that McGuinness’s overtures having been spurned, it’s hard to see anyone else in the republican movement being able or willing to take the same risks of symbolic gestures with bitter unionists.

He’s a hard man to follow in more ways than one.


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