Our divisions underlined following Martin McGuinness’s death

Posted By: March 25, 2017

Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill (front), Mary Lou McDonald (middle) and 

Gerry Adams (back), carry the coffin during the funeral procession of 
former Deputy First Minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness, 
ahead of his funeral at St Columba’s Church Long Tower, in Derry

Alex Kane. Irish News. Belfast. 24 March 2017 01:00

I tailed off a piece in Wednesday’s Irish News with the words: “The fact that he will divide opinion in death as much as he did in life suggests that he still had a journey to complete and many, many questions to answer.”

I was, of course, referring to Martin McGuinness. In some parts of Northern Ireland people were in tears and speaking of “a great Irish hero.” In other parts, they were talking about a “terrorist and unrepentant killer who displayed no remorse and took his dirty secrets to the grave.”

Others opted for a more measured, nuanced analysis, arguing that “while he had done very bad things, he had also been instrumental in bringing peace to Northern Ireland.” And, as is often the case with me, I was accused of being both ‘too hard’ and ‘far too easy’ on him—albeit by people from either side of our communal fence.

Those who despised McGuinness—and there are many of them—can’t understand why he was given mandate after mandate by the electorate in both Derry and Mid-Ulster. They don’t understand why Sinn Féin is a whisker away from being the largest party in Northern Ireland. They don’t understand why successive British governments kept open channels of communication with him for decades. They don’t understand why presidents, prime ministers, celebrities and even the Queen, lined up to shake his hand. They don’t understand the wall-to- wall coverage of his death.

And yet McGuinness is not unique in this respect. History is knee deep in former terrorists/freedom fighters who ended up in government and became revered statesmen. Many of them used particularly brutal methods to overthrow the status quo. He will obviously not be First Minister, but he may well have paved the path for someone else from Sinn Féin.

This is very difficult for those who have experienced the brutality of the IRA. How, they ask, can a terrorist be elevated to the government? How, they further ask, can the representatives of a party that supported terrorism now be in charge of education, health, and welfare? There is no comforting answer. Just the plain, simple answer—they got a mandate. It’s called democracy. And democracy isn’t always kind.

For those who regard themselves as victims of the IRA (and yes, I acknowledge that there are others who regard themselves as victims of loyalist paramilitaries and the security forces and who have similar difficulties of acceptance) all of this raises a number of problems. They believe that the ‘enemy,’ the ‘terrorist’ has won. They believe their loved ones died in vain. They believe they—and their injured or murdered loved ones—have been neglected. They believe they will receive neither truth nor justice. So, it’s understandable that the coverage given to McGuinness unsettles them; disgusts them, even.

But adding insult to the collective injury that many victims feel, is the additional fact that the ‘good government’ they were promised as a consequence of the peace process has yet to materialize.

A few months ago, I had a long conversation with two women whose husbands were murdered by the IRA. One had voted for the Good Friday Agreement in the 1998 referendum; the other hadn’t. But both had now reached the same point of despair: “It would make it easier to bear the continuing loss if we could see the DUP and Sinn Féin working together for all of us. But they’re not. They’re still fighting their own party battles. They’re still polarizing this place. We haven’t reached a better place, and we could go back to the bad old days in the flick of a switch.”

Over the years I have talked to many individuals and groups who define themselves as victims. There is no unanimity of view, though. Some have been able to forgive. Some haven’t. Some supported the GFA. Some didn’t. Some support the ongoing political/peace process. Some don’t. Some think Northern Ireland is a better place than it used to be. Some don’t.

Yet one thing which a clear majority of those I have spoken to (probably around 300 or so) agree on, is their despair about the political parties being unable to tackle the problems which still threaten the process at regular intervals. In other words, they are angry that the real changes they desire still seem so far away.

The reaction to McGuinness’s death demonstrates how divided we remain twenty years after the peace process began. The reaction to Ian Paisley’s death demonstrated exactly the same division. Their deaths were a reminder of not only how far we have come (the personal journey in their cases), but of how far we have yet to go.

The hero/villain response to their deaths is an exact, precise manifestation of a still riven society. More worryingly, it’s also a reminder of the scale of the problem now facing Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neil