McGuinness put us on path to a better future

Posted By: January 13, 2017

Alex Kane. Irish News. Belfast. Friday, January 13, 2017

The surest way of evaluating a political career is by contrasting the beginning with the end: measuring the early dreams and ambitions against the tangible legacy.

So, when Martin McGuinness stepped down as Deputy First Minister—crashing the entire system as he closed the door behind him—it would be tempting to conclude that, after ten years in the job, he was angry, bitter, disillusioned and deeply, deeply disappointed.

While Northern Ireland has certainly improved in many ways since the mid-1990s, it would probably be safe to assume that he believed the DUP—his partners in government since May 2007—hadn’t changed at all in terms of their approach and attitude to Republicans.

And in drawing that conclusion, or making that assumption, one might further conclude that his dreams lay in tatters. There is no united Ireland. The British ‘presence’ is still here. Partition continues. Unionism remains the opinion of the majority. Sinn Féin sits in Stormont. He has served with Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson, and Arlene Foster. He took enormous personal, political and electoral risks for the Good Friday Agreement (and all the add-ons since then); yet here he is, forcing an election and demanding significant changes because it looks to many of his own grassroots as if Sinn Féin has been taken for a ride by the DUP.

I still remember the frisson which rippled across the Unionist benches when he was appointed the minister for education on December 2, 1999. It was the moment when Unionists—indeed everyone else, too—faced the fact that power sharing with Sinn Féin was happening. As one UUP MLA said to me on the day: “I never thought the moment would actually come when an IRA Godfather would be responsible for the education of my grandchildren and the employment of teachers I know.”

Looking back, it was probably that moment that sealed David Trimble’s fate as UUP leader and led to the party’s eclipse by the DUP. Someone who is now a very senior figure in the DUP whispered to me: “This will be the DUP’s strongest weapon against Trimble.”

But leap forward to May 2007, and there was the ‘Godfather’ chuckling away with ‘Dr. No.’ The Doc has gone. So too has Robinson, Trimble, Empey, Elliott, Hume, Mallon, Durkan, Ritchie, McDonnell and a slew of prime ministers and Taoisigh. Every other minister who served in that first executive has gone. He has just toppled Arlene Foster.

It’s been a long and a quite remarkable journey for a man who became a leader of the Provisional IRA in Derry in 1969, represented the IRA in talks with Secretary of State, William Whitelaw, in 1972 and who was instrumental in persuading the IRA to buy into a peace/political process from 1992 onwards. The man who would probably have nodded through attacks on politicians and security forces is now on first name terms with the UK, Irish and world leaders and regarded in many quarters as a statesman and peacemaker.

Like all people who have made that sort of journey he still divides opinion. A hero to some: an unrepentant terrorist to others. For some Republicans he is also a traitor; someone who has ‘sold out to the Brits’ only to be ‘treated as a puppet by the old bigots of unionism.’ And in what may turn out to be his last significant political act he has thrown the entire process into chaos and insisted that there will be no return to the ‘status quo’ when the election is over. It’s an act that will confirm the suspicions of those Unionists who have always believed that the Assembly was regarded by Sinn Féin as a ruse to speed up Irish unity.

I think it’s worth remembering that there wouldn’t be an Assembly to collapse if it hadn’t been for Martin McGuinness. Whatever went on behind the scenes, it was always him (sic), rather than Adams, who could make it work. Paisley would never have done a deal which led to sharing power with Adams; and nor, I imagine, would Robinson. I’ve always said, that with the exception of Paisley, Unionists haven’t ever ‘liked’ McGuinness on a personal level; so it’s no surprise that things were so difficult for so long. All of which he seemed able to swallow. But senior Sinn Féin members have spoken of the ‘lack of respect’ that Foster has for him: or, as one DUP figure summed it up; “Don’t underestimate the impact of dealing with people who tried to murder your father.”

It’s far too early to make a judgment call on what his legacy, as an IRA leader and Sinn Féin leader, will be. Most of what he would have wanted to happen haven’t happened: and it’s hard to believe that crashing the Assembly would have brought him any personal satisfaction.

But he was personally responsible for helping to change the political dynamics over the past twenty years, and in doing so put Northern Ireland on the path to being something better than it had been.